Photo: Citizen scientists can fill info gaps about Fukushima effects

A radioactive plume is expected to reach the West Coast sometime this year, but experts say it will be diluted by currents off Japan's east coast. (Credit: Jeffery Young)

By David Suzuki with contributions from Ian Hanington, Senior Editor

An Internet search turns up an astounding number of pages about radiation from Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown that followed an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. But it's difficult to find credible information.

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One reason is that government monitoring of radiation and its effects on fish stocks appears to be limited. According to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, "No U.S. government or international agency is monitoring the spread of low levels of radiation from Fukushima along the West Coast of North America and around the Hawaiian Islands."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's most recent food testing, which includes seafood, appears to be from June 2012. Its website states, "FDA has no evidence that radionuclides from the Fukushima incident are present in the U.S. food supply at levels that would pose a public health concern. This is true for both FDA-regulated food products imported from Japan and U.S. domestic food products, including seafood caught off the coast of the United States."

The non-profit Canadian Highly Migratory Species Foundation has been monitoring Pacific troll-caught albacore tuna off the B.C. coast. Its 2013 sampling found "no residues detected at the lowest detection limits achievable." The B.C. Centre for Disease Control website assures us we have little cause for concern about radiation from Japan in our food and environment. Websites for Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency yield scant information.

But the disaster isn't over. Despite the Japanese government's claim that everything is under control, concerns have been raised about the delicate process of removing more than 1,500 nuclear fuel rod sets, each containing 60 to 80 fuel rods with a total of about 400 tonnes of uranium, from Reactor 4 to a safer location, which is expected to take a year. Some, including me, have speculated another major earthquake could spark a new disaster. And Reactors 1, 2 and 3 still have tonnes of molten radioactive fuel that must be cooled with a constant flow of water.

A radioactive plume is expected to reach the West Coast sometime this year, but experts say it will be diluted by currents off Japan's east coast and, according to the Live Science website, "the majority of the cesium-137 will remain in the North Pacific gyre — a region of ocean that circulates slowly clockwise and has trapped debris in its center to form the 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch' — and continue to be diluted for approximately a decade following the initial Fukushima release in 2011."

With the lack of data from government, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is asking the public for help. In January, Ken Buesseler, senior scientist and director of the Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity at the U.S.-based non-profit, launched a fundraising campaign and citizen science website to collect and analyze seawater along North America's West Coast.

"Whether you agree with predictions that levels of radiation along the Pacific Coast of North America will be too low to be of human health concern or to impact fisheries and marine life, we can all agree that radiation should be monitored, and we are asking for your help to make that happen," Buesseler said in a news release.

Participants can help fund and propose new sites for seawater sampling, and collect seawater to ship to the lab for analysis. The David Suzuki Foundation is the point group for two sampling sites, on Haida Gwaii and at Bamfield on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Data will be published at How Radioactive Is Our Ocean?, and will include an evolving map showing cesium concentrations with links to information about radioactivity in the ocean and what the levels mean.

The oceans contain naturally occurring radioactive isotopes and radiation from 1960s nuclear testing. Buesseler doesn't think levels in the ocean or seafood will become dangerously high because of the Fukushima disaster, but he stresses the importance of monitoring.

The Fukushima disaster was a wake-up call for the potential dangers of nuclear power plants, especially in unstable areas. North Americans may have little cause for concern for now, but without good scientific information to determine whether or not it is affecting our food and environment we can't know for sure. The Woods Hole initiative is a good start.

January 30, 2014

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Feb 06, 2014
6:45 PM

Here, of all forums, why is the Buesseler jaw-boning minimizing of expectations proffered? As a marine biologist, I project the worst from bio-accumulation up the food-web, to US! Particularly with the radionuclides’ up to infinite half-lives compared with those of US mortal humans’ (three score and ten

Feb 05, 2014
3:23 PM

Why isn’t our food and water and air being tested daily for all radionuclides that have ‘left the building’? Many of those particles do not stop causing damage for thousands of years. The ocean does not ‘water down’ their toxicity. Here is a source of information:

Google: ‘buckyballs’. Learn what salt water does to radionuclides. This is a serious problem.

Dr. Suzuki was correct when he warned the public about the potential for disaster. Independent researchers who are measuring radiation in air filters are collecting data that proves the west coast is has been blasted by radiation from Fukushima. Also, non-stop radioactive water to the tune of at least 300 tons daily has flowed into the ocean since the melted cores came into contact with ground water. The ocean currents have brought that to our shores. Fisheries and Oceans B.C. printed their reports indicating that cesium 137 was here in 2012. As these radionuclides accumulate on our shores it becomes increasingly more worrisome to us who live near the water. Do your own research. Protect yourself.

Feb 05, 2014
2:35 PM

There is no safe level of radiation.

Jan 31, 2014
8:15 PM

Citizen Scientists? Cor. Will they be as well trained as citizen journalists?

Jan 31, 2014
7:23 AM

Here is some additional information to review.

Jan 31, 2014
6:21 AM

Since the Japanese prime minister Abe is only keen on beat his battle drum and threatening his neighbours without doing anything to contain the radioactive leakage, the worst contamination of the Pacific ocean is still to come.

Jan 31, 2014
5:14 AM

We are our own best friend, and should know not quest that everything is going to be alright.

Jan 30, 2014
6:30 PM

To make the study complete, it would be helpful to also monitor the impact of potential radiation on human population living along the coast. This can be done easily by using biomarkers recognizing DNA double strand breaks. The timing of this study is interesting as there is another Citizen Science project looking for funding on indiegogo. They propose to monitor DNA damage in the US population by using finger-prick blood collection. I thought I should point that project to the readers:

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