The scientific view on Fukushima radiation in Washington waters

Over the last year, and accelerating in the last week, we’ve seen a flurry of articles on the radiation from the leaking Fukushima plant, and it’s supposed effects on west coast sea life. As I personally am very concerned about it, and I represent the environmental community on the Jefferson County Marine Resources Committee, I decided to look into this myself.

Through contacts I was able to reach Mike Priddy, of the Washington State Department of Health. My contacts all said that Mike is a person who can be trusted to provide honest and thorough information about issues he is involved in.

Mike is working over at  Hanford and has access to the most sophisticated tools available to measure radioactivity and isolate isotopes (radionuclides) that can fingerprint the kind of radiation that is being measured. To be clear, we are all being exposed to background radiation all the time. The sun and cosmic rays are bombarding us as you read this, and there is background radiation  everywhere.  The key is having tools that are sophisticated enough to show you the fingerprint of that kind of radiation, and isolate  it from the mix. Additionally  radiation can be ‘fingerprinted’ and identified as being emitted from a specific source, such as Chernobyl or Fukushima. 

Mike was very affable and agreed to chat. He said that he had been over to Port Townsend during the tsunami debris concern, and had spent many hours collecting debris that he then tested for radioactivity.

Mike stated that he has tested hundreds of various samples, from washed up debris definitely from the Japanese tsunami to fish he has bought on the open stands at the Pike Place Market, and to clams he’s dug on various beaches, including the coast. He has tested fish caught off the Washington Coast on various dates and these have included various species, from salmon to rock fish. He also has been in contact with other testers in Alaska, Oregon and California.  He feels he has gathered valid samples in every possible place he could, and is confident he has been looking in all the right places.

Mike has yet to find any radioactivity that can be traced to Fukushima in Washington waters. That includes washed up debris. He mentioned that others have found traces, at levels that are not scientifically significant (my paraphrase of his words). In California the lone albacore that had a minuscule of Fukushima radiation, was far below current levels of concern.  There is no way to know where the tuna came in contact with the plume. These fish can cross the Pacific, so it’s possible it either ate a fish contaminated, or may have swam through the plume at some point.

It is true that we received radiation from Fukushima after the explosion. It was detected at very small levels in rain and air samples. It never reached regulatory limits and quickly dispersed after the reactors were brought under control (to the level they have been brought under control). Point being, that we are not seeing those levels now.

I asked Mike if he feels that’s the last word on this issue, and he said, “No. There is no guarantee that we won’t see higher readings in the future from this. But I’m convinced there is nothing to be concerned about at this time. (emphasis mine).” 

Additionally, I reached out to the FDA, contacting Public Affairs Specialist Mary Ellen Taylor in San Francisco. Here is the official statement on the Fukushima testing from the FDA:

To date, 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. (emphasis mine). 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. Consequently, FDA is not advising consumers to alter their consumption of specific foods imported from Japan or domestically produced foods, including seafood. FDA continues to closely monitor the situation at and around the Fukushima Dai-ichi facility, as it has since the start of the incident and will coordinate with other Federal and state agencies as necessary, standing ready to take action if needed, to ensure the safety of food in the U.S. marketplace.

The Woods Hold Oceanographic Institute is an educational institution based in the US that is studying the effects of radioactive contaminants in the marine environment. They have information specific to your question about environmental monitoring:

The Woods Hole O.I. has been the lead scientists on this from the Federal level. As reported in an earlier article, I noted that:

WHOI senior scientist Ken Buesseler has collected and analyzed the seawater surrounding the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant since the 2011 disaster. As the low-level radiation travels across the Pacific, Buesseler has launched a crowd sourcing campaign and website to monitor radiation levels along the West Coast of North America.

UPDATE TO EARLIER POST: In July of last year, a monitoring ship was sent from British Columbia out 250km. This was the second time since the Fukushima melt down that the ship surveyed looking for radiation from Fukushima. The July 2013 samples showed that there was  detectable, but extremely small levels  of Cesium from Fukushima present. These samples were found close to shore as well as farther out.  While it appears that no Fukushima contaminated food or debris has yet to be found, it is likely we will be seeing positive samples over 2014, as computer models predicted.  The levels being detected in the 2013 survey  are extremely low. Far below any level of concern by health officials. In fact, they are barely above the detectable threshold. However, the levels do rise slightly as the survey was 250km out. They are still at levels barely above detectable. You can follow the writings on the topic of the Canadian survey, view some powerpoint illustrations of the survey’s findings  and learn more about the misrepresentation that others have done with the data, at the Daily KOS. This is current information and the author has been tracking this story for some time now.

Mr. Buesseler  is doing a crowd source funded effort to get people to send in water samples so that they can test on the type of equipment that can actually separate out the Cesium isotopes from the background radiation. I would say that it would be a good idea to help fund this effort, but frankly, I would expect the state or federal government to be funding this.

The DOH is apparently working to put their findings online, but there is no planned delivery date yet put to the public. There was insufficient funding available for it in the current budget, but it appears that they will be working to bring this data out as funding allows over 2014. Obviously, given the public concern on this, it would be worthwhile to see a scientfic analysis of that data, and allow people to draw their own conclusions.

As someone who has championed testing for Fukushima radiation since the day the leak started, I am very concerned about the inept handling of the entire affair by Japan.  But I feel convinced that at this time we are not seeing anything that would lead me to change my eating habits. I will be among the first wave to call for a seafood ban if this becomes an issue that is capable of being proven scientifically. However, I will continue to stay in touch with Mike and others, and keep my readership updated on this issue.

From Oregon State:

Despite speculation, scientists see no Fukushima radiation risk in albacore



4 Responses

  1. Radioisotope Brief: Cesium-137 (Cs-137)

    How can it hurt me?

    External exposure to large amounts of Cs-137 can cause burns, acute radiation sickness, and even death. Exposure to Cs-137 can increase the risk for cancer because of exposure to high-energy gamma radiation. Internal exposure to Cs-137, through ingestion or inhalation, allows the radioactive material to be distributed in the soft tissues, especially muscle tissue, exposing these tissues to the beta particles and gamma radiation and increasing cancer risk.

    Read full fact sheet at:

    You’re welcome

    OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The dock that washed ashore on a remote Washington beach last month has been confirmed as debris from the March 2011 tsunami in Japan.

    The state Marine Debris Task Force says it was identified by the Japanese government through photos that showed a fender serial number. The dock came from the Aomori Prefecture and is similar to the dock that washed ashore last summer at Newport, Ore., also from the tsunami.

    The Coast Guard spotted the dock Dec. 18 on a beach near Forks. It’s within a wilderness portion of Olympic National Park and also within the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and will be removed.

    • I don’t think you understand. While the dock was Japanese and definitely from Fukushima, there was no radiation found on it, according to my sources, who say they tested it.

  3. Someone is confused:
    From the Washington State Department of Health
    From the Washington State Department of Ecology:

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