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Seawater testing project ramps up
Citizen scientists aid in tracking coastal radiation
by Chris Bolster | reporter@prpeak.com

Published: Wednesday, October 8, 2014 12:42 PM PDT
A seawater testing project on BC’s coast is ramping up to record the arrival of Japanese radiation leaked into the sea from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster.

On March 11, 2011, the plant on the north east coast of Japan was hit by a tsunami triggered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. Three of the six nuclear reactors at the plant went into meltdown and a day later started to leak radioactive material into the Pacific Ocean. It is known as the largest nuclear incident since Chernobyl in 1986.

Dr. Jay Cullen is a chemical oceanographer at the University of Victoria who is leading the three-year project.

Starting this month, Cullen and his team will be coordinating about 600 citizen scientist volunteers in 14 coastal communities who will be collecting seawater samples monthly to send to the lab.

“The project itself is building on the success of more modest testing programs the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Health Canada have been carrying out since the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi in March 2011,” said Cullen.

DFO and Dr. John Smith have been making measurements in the north east Pacific and the Arctic oceans looking for radionuclides from Fukushima in seawater, he said.

Cesium-137, a signature isotope of Fukushima, was first detected about 1,500 kilometres offshore in 2012. In June 2013 it was detected off the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Cullen’s project will track the arrival of the plume of contaminated seawater being transported on North Pacific ocean currents.

“It’s to track its arrival and look for the maximum activities of these isotopes which will dictate what the risk is to the public,” Cullen said, adding that estimates suggest peak levels will reach BC during the next three years.

Scientist have measured low levels of radioactive material in seawater for decades.

“If you look at the activity of some of the isotopes which present the greatest health risks like Cesium-137 or Strontium-90 those levels peaked in the mid-1960s as a result of weapons testing,” said Cullen.

Currently there is only a slight trace of the chemicals from the disaster, he said.

“If you lived here in the 1970s or 80s the radioactivity of seawater and fish was likely greater than what we expect to be resulting from Fukushima,” he added.

Readers interested in the most recent scientific studies on the radiation-contaminated seawater or more information on the project, can visit Cullen’s blog or the study’s website.

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