Testing the waters for Fukushima

Story by John Gleeson

Originally posted to the Coast Reporter Sept. 4, 2014

Despite the doom porn circulating on the Internet, there has been no radiation from Fukushima detected yet along the Salish Sea – or if you prefer, the Strait of Georgia.

That’s according to Jay Cullen, a chemical oceanographer at the University of Victoria.

Cullen is heading a radioactivity monitoring network that is looking for “volunteer scientists” along the B.C. coast, including the Upper and Lower Sunshine Coast.

While no isotopes from Fukushima have been detected in our waters to date, there is no question that the plume of radioactive seawater is heading our way.

“We should see the highest activities heading into late next year,” Cullen said Wednesday.

When meltdowns occurred at three Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants on the heels of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, radiation poured into the atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean. An estimated 80 per cent of the airborne radiation fell into the sea, and that was on top of direct flows.

“We know there was an atmospheric component, but we also know there were very significant discharges into the ocean,” Cullen said.

To put into perspective just how much radiation entered the Pacific, an estimated 300 tonnes of radioactive water have reportedly been entering the ocean every day since the initial discharges, and there has been ongoing contamination from atmospheric releases that fall into the sea.

Yet that cumulative amount, Cullen said, is “10,000 to 100,000 times less significant” than the original releases.

The monster plume is carried east across the ocean on the North Pacific Current.

“You can think of it as a dye that’s affecting the water. A very large amount was dumped in March 2011 and behind it is a trickle. It’s here. It’s offshore, and the next year is the critical time to determine the spacial extent of the plume and how high the activity is.”

Cesium-134 – a signature isotope for Fukushima because of its relatively short half-life – was first detected about 1,500 kilometres offshore in 2012. In June 2013 it was detected off the west coast of Vancouver Island. Samples taken at Salt Spring Island and Vancouver have tested negative, so far.

Amounts have been described as “barely detectable.”

Cullen said the level of cesium-134 found off Vancouver Island, both in June 2013 and February 2014, was about one-half of a becquerel per cubic metre (Bq m-3). At the height of nuclear weapons testing in the 1960s and 1970s, he said, readings of 80 Bq m-3 were measured in the North Pacific.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution says on its website that the highest published prediction of cesium isotopes in the next two to three years is 20 to 30 Bq m-3, “or well below what is thought to be of human health or fisheries concern.”

Many would dispute that last point, but everyone agrees there is a vital need for real data.

The citizen scientist initiative is part of a $630,000 project called the InFORM network that will also test marine life for radiation. Volunteers will be trained and equipped to collect seawater samples monthly for three years. The samples will be sent to labs for analysis then shared online and at community meetings.

Without good information, Cullen noted, “other information” surfaces to fill the void. That’s where the doom porn comes in.

To volunteer contact Cullen before Sept. 30 via a contact form at www.fukushimainform.ca.

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