This short blog summarizes an open access paper published today reporting results from a Canadian monitoring program tasked with documenting the arrival of ocean borne Fukushima contamination along the North American Pacific coast. This diary is part of an ongoing effort to communicate the best science available on the impacts of the Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdowns on the environment. High quality measurements to look for Fukushima derived radiocesium were made in seawater in the North Pacific and Arctic Oceans from 2011 to early 2014. The authors concluded that:
Fukushima derived radiocesium was first detected 1500 km west of British Columbia Canada in June 2012
Contamination was detected on the continental shelf (near coastal waters) in June 2013
By February 2014 Fukushima radiocesium was present at levels similar to preexisting weapons testing derived 137-Cs
These same models predict that total radiocesium levels from weapons testing fallout and Fukushima will likely reach maximum values of ~3-5 Becquerel per cubic meter (Bq m-3 of seawater in 2015-2016 and then decline to fallout background level of ~1 Bq m-3 by 2021
Fukushima will increase northeastern Pacific water to levels last seen in the 1980’s but does not represent a threat to environmental or human health
The Integrated Fukushima Ocean Radionuclide Monitoring (InFORM) project is a network involving academic, governmental, and non-governmental organizations, as well as citizen scientists. InFORM is acquiring data to support a thorough radiological impact assessment for Canada’s west coast stemming from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant (FD-NPP) accident, and to effectively communicate these results to the public. The first measurements undertaken as part of the InFORM project to look for Fukushima derived radionculides were made on 19 fish in collaboration with the Nisga’a First Nation. Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) and Steelhead Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) were caught off the west coast of Canada in Summer 2014 as they were returning to the Nass River in northern BC.
Measurements of radioactive elements in these fish are reported in the data table below and are available for download through Health Canada:
Samples Combined (average)
Numbers with “<” indicate that levels were below the detection limit of the analysis and numbers inside parenthesis “( )” report the uncertainty associated with the measurement.
What are we measuring and why?
The triple meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant (NPP) released many different radioisotopes to the environment, however only a very few of these are both measurable and unique to Fukushima. A reliable finger-print radioisotope for Fukushima is Cesium-134 (134-Cs half life ~ 2 years). This is because 134-Cs is only produced in nuclear reactors and it has a relatively short half-life, so that 134-Cs from other human sources, like the Chernobyl NPP disaster in 1986, are no longer present in the environment. Other isotopes such as Cesium-137 (137-Cs half life ~30 years) are not positive indicators of Fukushima since they were also a products of atmospheric testing in the 20th century and Chernobyl and are still present in the environment from these legacy sources.
How scientists talk about radioactivity in the environment
Scientists use a variety of units to measure radioactivity. A commonly used unit is the Becquerel (Bq for short) which represents an amount of radioactive material where one atom decays per second and has units of inverse time (per second). Another unit commonly used is disintegrations per minute (dpm) where the number of atoms undergoing radioactive decay in one minute are counted (so 1 Bq = 60 dpm). The measurements above represent that numbers of Bq detected in a kilogram of fish flesh.
Measurements of Sockeye Salmon and SteelheadTrout
We measured the activities of cesium radioisotopes 134-Cs and 137-Cs that were released in large quantities from the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster in 2011. We also measured naturally occurring radioisotopes Potassium-40 (40-K) and Polonium-210 (210-Po) that always contribute doses of radiation to human consumers of marine fish. Samples of sockeye salmon and steelhead returning to the Nass River in northern BC, obtained from the Nisga’a First Nation, were analyzed and none were found to contain detectable levels of Fukushima derived radionuclides. By adding together the signals obtained for all of the samples we calculate an average activity concentration of 0.27 Bq/kg for 137-Cs. This represents residual 137-Cs in the North Pacific largely from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in the last century. At present, Fukushima derived radionuclides cannot be detected. Nuclear weapons testing fallout (137-Cs) can be detected in BC fish at levels that represent a fraction of the radiation exposure owing to naturally occurring radionuclides neither of which represent a dangerous health risk to consumers in Canada. Results for a further ~80 fish collected this summer and fall from various returning runs up and down the BC coast will be reported as samples are analyzed.
19 fish samples, flesh only (9 Sockeye Salmon and 10 Steelhead Trout) were obtained from the Nisga’a First Nation
A sub-sample of ~125g of wet mass (average wet mass (measured) = 126.67 g) was taken and placed in a sample counting container
Gamma-radiation emitting isotopes were measured by gamma spectroscopy using a high purity germanium detector and each sample being counted for 6 hours
Planar BE5030 high purity germanium (HPGe) detector with relative counting efficiency of 46%
counting geometry = Parkway Jar (Polyethylene, active volume = 129 mL) placed in a polyacrylate sample holder (2.95 mm thickness)
counting efficiency was determined by applying an empirical efficiency curve, determined from a multi-nuclide (12) standard (Eckert and Ziegler Analytics, SRS: 79535-411) of similar density (1.15 g/cm^3, Parkway Jar format) spanning energies of 46.5 – 1836.1 KeV
true coincidence summing (where applicable) is accomplished by extracting detailed decay scheme data from the UniSampo-Shaman nuclide library
Spectral summation was done by adding all the spectrum into a single one and then reanalysed using UniSampo-Shaman gamma spectral analysis software from Baryon Oy, Ltd., Finland, with decay correction to the catch date of August 28, 2014
The purpose of this post is to report on new results coming out the crowd-funded Our Radioactive Ocean program headed up by Dr. Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. This post is part of an ongoing series dedicated to scientific inquiry into the impact of the triple meltdowns at Fukushima on the health of the North Pacific Ocean and residents of the west coast of North America. Measurements of the cesium radioisotopes 134-Cs (half life ~ 2 years) and 137-Cs (half life ~30 years) were made on samples collected on a transect between Monterey Bay CA and Dutch Harbor AK this summer. Because of its relatively short half life 14-Cs serves as an unequivocal tracer of Fukushima contamination in the environment. Fukushima derived 134-Cs was detected at offshore stations with a maximum activity of ~ 2 Bq/m^3 and total 137-Cs activities of ~7 Bq/m^3 of seawater. Measurements have yet to detect 134-Cs in nearshore waters sampled up and down the North American west coast. These activities of Cs are orders of magnitude below levels thought to pose a measurable risk to human health or marine life, according to international health agencies.
For a primer on radioactivity in the ocean and the units used to discuss radioactive elements in the environment please visit this post.
A press release from WHOI regarding these new results can be found here and details about sampling locations and activities of Cs detected are available here.
At a great majority of sites sampled along the coast and offshore the activity of 134-Cs is below detection limit (~legacy contamination resulting from atmospheric weapons testing in the 20th century. Similar to previous work by Dr. John Smith of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada the presence of the contaminated plume of seawater owing to releases from Fukushima can be detected in offshore stations (150 – 1500 km) with levels of 134-Cs approaching 2 Bq/m^3 and total 137-Cs (bomb + Fukushima) of about ~7 Bq/m^3. These levels of 137-Cs are similar to levels in the North Pacific Ocean that were present in 1990 owing to the combined effects of Chernobyl and weapons testing fallout as shown in the figure below.
Activities of these isotopes were about 10 million fold higher in coastal waters near the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant off Japan in the weeks following the beginning of the disaster in March and April 2011 when rates of release and seawater concentrations were at their peak. Current releases from the plant support seawater activities on the order of 10’s-100’s of Bq/m^3 within 2 km of the plant site. The highest activities associated with the most contaminated seawater from Fukushima are predicted to travel across the North Pacific with prevailing currents and arrive in North American waters between this year and next. These offshore activities of Fukushima derived 137-Cs of ~ 5 Bq/m^3 exceed predicted activities of ~3 Bq/m^3 suggesting that offshore activities are likely reaching near peak values. The measurements being made by the international scientific community will undoubtedly help to improve our understanding of mixing and transport in the oceans.
The activities of radiocesium being detected offshore are well below levels thought to represent significant radiological health risks to marine organisms or residents of the west coast of North America. To this point no 134-Cs from the contaminated plume approaching the coast has been detected in nearshore waters. Ongoing monitoring by programs like Our Radioactive Ocean and its partner program InFORM which are making measurements of contamination in seawater and marine organisms will be key to understanding impacts of the Fukushima on our environment.
The most recent results of Kelp Watch 2014 , a program dedicated to monitoring for the presence of Fukushima sourced radionuclides off our Pacific Coast, are reported in this post. This post is the latest contribution to a series dedicated to the dissemination of information about the impacts of the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster on the North Pacific Ocean ecosystem and on North American public health. New results from the second sampling period (June to August 2014) of Kelp Watch 2014 were just released and can be found here. As with previously reported results here and here no radioactive isotopes from Fukushima were detected in kelp growing at sampling sites spread across the eastern Pacific coast. However, significant quantities of the short lived radioisotope 131-Iodine (half life ~8 days) continued to be found in Los Angeles County and San Diego in southern California. Rather than being transported across the Pacific these isotopes were likely released locally in waste water that carries significant 131-I because of its application in nuclear medicine to treat thyroid maladies. The absence of 134-Cs in kelp suggest that ocean transport of Fukushima contamination has yet to reach North American coastal water.
Samples were collected June to August of this year at various sampling locations along the coast with some kelp obtained from Chile and Tasmania (where little Fukushima impact is expected) to serve as reference locations.
Full results for the second sampling period can be found here along with details about the goals and approach of Kelp Watch 2014.
Because of its relatively short half life of ~2 years radioactive 134-Cs serves as a useful tracer of Fukushima impact as it was released in significant quantities, with many other isotopes, into the environment after the disaster in March 2011. All other legacy sources of the human produced isotope have occurred far enough in the past that any 134-Cs present in the environment faithfully reflects release from Fukushima. Similar to previous work by this program all samples of kelp collected from the Pacific by Kelp Watch 2014 in June to August of this year had no detectable (detection limit ~ 0.04 Bq/kg dry weight of kelp) levels of 134-Cs suggesting that isotopes from Fukushima are not significantly affecting radioisotope activities in these organisms to date.
The authors summarize findings about 134-Cs and its longer lived cousin 137-Cs (half life ~30 yr) as follows:
Cesium-137 was detected in all West Coast samples at very low levels. This isotope is still detectable in the marine environment due to above-ground nuclear weapons testing that took place mostly in the 1950s and 1960s. The very low limits set on the shorter-lived Cesium-134 mean that the Cs-137 cannot be directly tied to the Fukushima releases and is more likely due to these “legacy” sources.
Ongoing monitoring of seawater and marine organism activity concentrations of radioisotopes from Fukushima will help to determine the likely impacts on the ecosystem and public health along North America’s Pacific coast resulting from the disaster. As always, I will report new results as they are made available and we look forward to more work from this quality monitoring program.