News broke late this summer that nuclear fallout from the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan would hit Californian shores sometime next year.
But is there any risk to public health and safety? The study concluded that there isn’t, as have federal and local health officials. But that response hasn’t satisfied many residents—most of whom already question the safety of nuclear power at SLO County’s Diablo Canyon, the last operational nuclear plant in the state—a number of whom have warned of consequences at public meetings and begged local officials to do something about the situation.
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake—one of the largest in recorded history—erupted some 80 miles off the east coast of Japan. The tsunamis created by the temblor not only killed about 16,000 people and injured 6,000 more, but the up-to-30-foot walls of seawater also badly damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing four of the six reactors to release radiation into the atmosphere and the ocean.
Officials from Tokyo Electric Company (TEPCO), which operates the plant, recently announced that radioactive material continues to leak into the sea.
In August, the results of a joint study by the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Physics and Complex Systems (IFISC) in Spain and the Climate Change Research Centre and the Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science in Australia made international headlines, reporting that a plume of Cesium-137 contaminated seawater will reach, via natural currents, the West Coast of the United States in 2014. That’s the bad news. Now the good: That plume began significant dilution in July 2011, and it isn’t expected to be dangerous when it hits our shores.
Victor Rossi, from the IFISC, one of the co-authors of the study, told New Times via e-mail that the researchers essentially found through simulations that by the time the plume hits American shores, concentrations of Cesium-137 are expected to be 0.003 percent of the amount considered harmful, according to World Health Organization standards.
“In brief, considering the information presently available about the total amount of radioactive materials released into the ocean right after the accident, we found that the turbulent Kurushio current, the Kurushio extension, and the numerous eddies in the Pacific Ocean would have diluted substantially the plume,” Rossi wrote. “So there are no major worries to be had.”
That being said, Rossi added that there remain “small uncertainties” and that researchers should continue monitoring the ocean and looking for solutions to minimize potential impacts for such events in the future.
News of the study made international headlines, including some from Russian and Chinese news sources—i.e., the Russian and Chinese governments. Voice of Russia, for example, claimed, “U.S. West Coast to be hard-hit by Fukushima radiation.” The Russians base this claim on a study by the Science China Earth Sciences Journal, which found that Fukushima pollution is actually becoming more concentrated as it travels across the Pacific, showing little dispersion.
GuiJun Han, an author of the Science China study, didn’t respond to a New Times e-mail request for comment.
That study—as well as Russian claims that an unverified, “previously-secret” 1955 U.S. government report stated that ocean water may not properly dilute radiation from nuclear accidents, and recent disclosures by TEPCO that radiation continues to leak from the downed plant—only contributed to some residents’ sense of impending doom.
A spokesman for the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) referred all questions regarding the Australian study to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA Spokesperson Ernesta Jones told New Times that the federal agency continues to work closely with NOAA, the Department of Energy, as well as the Food and Drug Administration to follow the Fukushima oceanic leak. In response to the incident, she said, the EPA temporarily accelerated the agency’s sampling efforts using its RadNet monitoring system.
That system detects radiation through both sample analysis and air monitoring. According to the EPA website, more than 100 air monitors measure radiation 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and alert the agency if radiation levels increase outside of this normal range.
“To this day, the system continues to confirm that there are no harmful levels of radiation in the air reaching the U.S. from Japan,” Jones wrote in an e-mail.
In a response to a set of follow-up questions, agency spokesperson Julia Valentine said the EPA is aware of the Australian report, but didn’t have any further comment. She did say, however, that the agency’s RadNet system doesn’t specifically record radiation levels in seawater, but, in addition to what’s in the air, it monitors precipitation, drinking water, and milk for excessive radiation levels.
Local officials similarly aren’t concerned about a radioactive plume, though they admittedly rely heavily on the feds for information to support that opinion. SLO County Emergency Services Director Ron Alsop told New Times that, anecdotally, water is known to dilute radiation, and the first line of treatment for someone thought to be exposed to radiation is a shower.
Supervising Environmental Health Specialist Rich Lichtenfels, of the SLO County Health Agency, told New Times the agency performs baseline radiological surveys at the county’s 23 most-visited beaches. These recordings will be used to compare to any debris that washes up or to beaches once the dispersed plume is thought to reach U.S. waters.
“We’ll take all steps necessary to ensure that public health is protected by using the resources at our disposal as well as working with the state health department and NOAA and pass information along to public as we have it,” he said.
Lichtenfels added that any resident who might come upon significant washed up debris (as opposed to litter) suspected of originating from Japanese waters avoid handling the item, and instead contact Environmental Health at 781-4550 and/or NOAA at firstname.lastname@example.org. The debris will then be tested, and the results will be posted at www.slocounty.ca.gov/health/publichealth/ehs.htm.
Interestingly, the drift of the radioactive particles could actually benefit our understanding of how the ocean’s currents circulate around the globe, IFISC’s Rossi said. The center has established a website that tracks the movement of the ocean’s currents, including radiation particles associated with the Fukushima disaster. That site can be found at adrift.org.
The IFISC-Centre report can be found at dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.dsr.2013.05.015.
Contact News Editor Matt Fountain at email@example.com.