Fukushima contamination, in the ocean and biosphere

08/20/2015

Over four years after the disaster at the Fukushina Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, the debacle continues to unfold. Ground water has been seeping into three of the six reactors—units 1, 2 and 3—coming into contact with the melted cores and becoming contaminated. Three to four hundred metric tons of this water have been flowing daily into the Pacific Ocean. The radioactive plume is carried east by the ocean currents. Radionuclides will move up the food chain to bioaccumulate and biomagnify. To date, important fisheries off Fukushima remain closed due to cesium levels above Japanese limits for seafood. Scientists and the Federal Drug Administration have predicted, according to their models, that the ocean radiation is eventually diluted and seafood on our coast safe to eat. But without scientific monitoring along the West Coast, how can we be sure?

After the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, governmental agencies in the United States—the Environmental Protection Agency, Natural Resources Council, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Food and Drug Administration—did not step up with the research funds to monitor the ocean and atmosphere off this country’s western coast to determine levels of radiation. Concerned over the lack of ocean monitoring, I reached out to Professor Ken Buesseler, a marine radiochemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Mass., who does this specialized testing for Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. I learned that Buesseler had started a crowd-scourced initiative to monitor ocean radiation along the West Coast.  

As a young scientist, Buesseler monitored radiation levels in the Black Sea after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. After Fukushima, he obtained a $3.5 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to fund a research expedition team with eighteen scientists to monitor radiation offshore at Fukushima, and publish the results. Buesseler is now monitoring over 50 sites along the West Coast, funded by citizen-scientists. The results are posted to his website, ourradioactiveocean.org. 

By filling a five-gallon container of ocean water taken at a specific location and shipping it to Woods Hole at a cost of $550 per sample, a community can be informed of the levels of radiation at its site. With specialized equipment, Buesseler can analyze the sample for cesium concentrations, the “fingerprint” of Fukushima. Two years ago, I appealed to the West Marin community for funds to monitor a site just outside of Tomales Bay, and was able to raise $4,400—enough for eight samples.  Inverness fisherman Tom Baty volunteered to collect the samples and we have been sending this ocean water to Woods Hole every three months since January 2014. All the six samples, so far, have been below detection levels.  But in April of this year, Buesseler detected Fukushima radiation at a site north of Vancouver, B.C. Eventually, the currents will likely bring the radioactive plume south to our Marin coastline.  West Marin’s seventh sample was sent to Woods Hole this month.  

Buesseler will report on the results of the analysis of our ocean water sample at an event at the Dance Palace on Sept. 2. He will be joined by Tim Mousseau, a research biologist, at the University of South Carolina. Mousseau has studied the impacts of radioactive contaminants on biological communities in the Chernobyl region of the Ukraine and in Fukushima Prefecture. His research suggests that many species of birds, plants and animals have experienced direct toxicity as a result of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters. This has had dramatic consequences for development, reproduction and survival, and the effects observed at individual and population levels are having significant impacts on these regions. Next month’s discussion, moderated by Mary Beth Brangan of the Ecological Options Network, will be a unique opportunity to hear the latest research of two eminent scientists on Fukushima contamination in the ocean and in the biosphere.

 

Bing Gong, co-host of KWMR’s Post Carbon Radio, is a 20-year resident of  Point Reyes Station.

 

The event is on Sept. 2 from 7:30 to 9:30 pm at the Dance Palace in Point Reyes Station. It is free, but donations are appreciated to cover expenses; the suggested donation is $50. The pre-event dinner and fundraiser with both scientists is from 5 to 7 p.m. Space limited; please R.S.V.P. to the dinner and fundraiser at binggong@sonic.net or (415) 663.1380. Sponsored by Point Reyes Books, Ecological Options Network, and Fukushima Response.