Radiation From the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Is Approaching the California Coast
Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Monday said they had detected cesium 134—radioactive fallout from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown—about 100 miles offshore of the Northern California town of Eureka.
But don’t freak out.
“This Fukushima-derived cesium is far below where one might expect any measurable risk to human health or marine life, according to international health agencies,” the scientists said in a statement. The levels were 1,000 times lower than the limits for drinking water set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, they said.
In an Ask Me Anything post on Reddit on Monday morning, Ken Buesseler, a Woods Hole marine scientist, said that if a person swam for six hours a day, 365 days a year, off Eureka, the radiation exposure would still be a thousand times less than what a person would be exposed to from a single dental X-ray.
Since the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the radiation dispersed from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident has been making its way across the Pacific Ocean. The power plant meltdown released unprecedented amounts of radioactive elements into the ocean, with cesium 134 traces in waters off Japan’s coast tens of millions of times higher than what Buesseler and his team have found here.
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“When cesium levels are in the 10’s millions, there are possible direct impacts on mortality and reproductive ability of marine life,” Buesseler said on Reddit.
Those concerns prompted Japanese officials to close fisheries and impose some of the strictest radiation testing on food products in the world.
In the U.S., scientists have been measuring Fukushima-influenced radioactivity in kelp forests off Southern California as well as fish caught from San Diego to Seattle, and Wood Hole has been monitoring water samples from Alaska to Mexico.
Buesseler said the Eureka offshore sample was the only one that showed traces of cesium 134.
So when do scientists expect the radiation to reach the West Coast?
“We don’t know exactly when the Fukushima isotopes will be detectable closer to shore because the mixing of offshore surface waters and coastal waters is hard to predict,” Buesseler said in a statement.
While the detected levels are well below those deemed harmful to humans, models predicting how much radiation could be along the West Coast suggest cesium levels will increase over the next two to three years.
Buesseler said careful and consistent monitoring of the water is needed to keep tabs on the radiation.
“We need both citizen scientists to keep up the coastal monitoring network but also research vessels and comprehensive studies offshore like this one that are too expensive for the average citizen to support,” he said.