SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

How Radioactive is Our Ocean?
No visible or proactive leadership role by AK DEC in monitoring radiation



January 27, 2014
Monday PM

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska - Nearly three years after the tsunami that resulted in Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant accident, questions remain about how much radioactive material has been released and how widely and quickly it is dispersing in the Pacific Ocean and our northwestern coast line.

In a presentation last week to the Alaska Senate Resources Committee, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig's overview noted the state has found no reason for concern. Hartig also reported to the committee last week that the DEC is not carrying out fish testing for radiation with his report indicating there may well be more radiation risk in a banana than in tuna.

jpg How Radioactive is Our Ocean?

New citizen science campaign aims to collect ocean samples and fund radiation analysis
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.
Photo courtesy of Ken Buesseler, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

In an interview with the Juneau Empire, Hartig pointed out that Alaska DEC tests fish regularly, not just for radiation,“We try to test for things that we think present real risk, like mercury.” The commissioner added he was concerned that people were being misinformed and not taking into consideration scientific research.

Regarding the spread of misinformation, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of Sitka says the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has not played a visible nor a proactive leadership role in monitoring radiation concerns. He wrote in a recent newsletter, "...We absolutely need to cautiously monitor the situation. There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about Fukushima, and the Department of Environmental Conservation should play a visible, proactive leadership role. It has not. Unchecked by fact, fear-mongering Facebook posts that make the entire Pacific Ocean look as though it's practically boiling with nuclear radiation are stirring up paranoia."

Referencing scientific information provided by marine chemist Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Kreiss-Tomkins wrote, "Facebook is good for photos of your best friend's impossibly cute newborn baby. But for Fukushima information, take it from Dr. Buesseler of Woods Hole: the Pacific is safe and so is our seafood."

Although the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, nor any U.S. government or international agency is monitoring the spread of low levels of radiation from Fukushima along Alaska or the West Coast of North America, marine chemist Ken Buesseler at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) has been gathering samples -- some from as close as half a mile from the damaged reactors -- and has been analyzing this seawater for Fukushima contaminants since 2011.

In January 2014, the Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity (CMER) at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), a private non-profit marine research and education organization, launched a project to involve the public in gathering seawater samples and raising funds for analyses that will provide the latest information about radiation levels in the ocean. This data will be published on a website, “How Radioactive is Our Ocean?”

The world’s oceans contain many naturally occurring radioactive isotopes, as well as the remnants of nuclear weapons testing from the 1960s. Starting in 2011, fallout, runoff, and continued leaks from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan added to this baseline and sparked fears of wide-ranging impacts to the marine ecosystem and human health.

Although Buesseler does not expect levels to be dangerously high in the ocean or in seafood as the plume spreads 5,000 miles across the Pacific, he believes this is an evolving situation that demands careful, consistent monitoring to make sure predictions are true.

“I’m particularly excited about finding support for sampling key locations along the West Coast multiple times throughout the coming two years, because radioactivity levels are expected to be increasing,” he says.

Buesseler launched a crowd sourcing campaign and citizen science website on January 14, 2014, to collect and analyze seawater along the West Coast of North America as the radioactive plume travels 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean.

“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,” says Buesseler, WHOI senior scientist and director of the Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity (CMER).

Through the website “How Radioactive is Our Ocean?” the public can support the monitoring of radiation in the ocean with tax-deductible donations to fund the analysis of existing samples or by proposing new locations and funding the samples and analysis of those sites.

“We already have dozens of seawater samples from the coast of Japan out to the middle of the Pacific, but now we need new samples - from up and down the West Coast of North America and across the Pacific. The trouble is, these samples are expensive to collect and analyze,” Buesseler says.

To propose a new location for seawater sampling, individuals and communities will be asked to donate a minimum of $100 for seed funding. Not every proposed site can be accepted due to limits on sample throughput, but if selected, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) will setup a fundraising webpage to help a group reach their fundraising goal. The collection and analysis of a seawater sample costs between $550 and $600, depending upon location. Once the full amount is raised, the individual will receive a sampling kit to collect 20 liters (about five gallons) of seawater to be shipped back to the CMER lab for analysis.

The results from those analyses will be posted on an evolving map online, where you can see cesium concentrations and sponsors’ names with links to information about radioactivity in the ocean and what the levels tell us.

Buesseler wrote in frequently asked questions 'Is radiation exposure still a concern', that he stood on a ship two miles from the Fukushima reactors in June 2011 and as recently as May 2013, and it was safe to be there. He carries radiation detectors and collect samples of all kinds (water, sediment, biota). He wrote, "Although radioactive isotopes in the samples and on the ship were measurable back in our lab, it was low enough to be safe to handle samples without any precautions. In fact, our biggest problem is filtering out natural radionuclides in our samples so we can measure the trace levels of cesium and other radionuclides that we know came from Fukushima."

How radioactivity is measured

Measuring radionuclides in the ocean requires a specialized gamma-detecting instrument that costs about $75,000, skilled lab personnel to operate the equipment, and a scientist to analyze the data. Fukushima contamination can be “fingerprinted” from precise measurements of the relative amounts of a long lived cesium-137 isotope with a 30 year half life, that has been in the ocean from 1960s weapons testing, to its ratio to cesium-134, which decays with a 2 year half life, and is only around from the more recent 2011 Fukushima source.

Radiation levels are measured by Bequerels (Bq), the number of radioactive decay events per second. They are reported per cubic meter of seawater (m3), which is equivalent to 1,000 liters (264 gallons). A typical seawater sample will contain just a few Bq/m3 of the cesium isotopes and much higher levels of naturally occurring radionuclides. By comparison, the limit for cesium in drinking water in the U.S. is 7,400 Bq/m3.

How Radioactive is Our Ocean?

The latest cesium levels have been updated and reported on the citizen scientist website since January 14, 2014.

Support for the citizen scientist website project thus far, has been provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Deerbrook Charitable Trust, Onset, the Pacific Blue Foundation, and the Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity (CMER) at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Japanese Tsunami Marin Debris funds

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has received $1 million from NOAA out of the Japanese Tsunami Marin Debris funds. Six contractors have been selected for tsunami marine debris removal and aerial survey operations with work to begin in the Spring 2014.


Related Website:

How Radioactive is Our Ocean?
Citizen Scientist Website - Propose a location

Related Scientific Information

Oceanus Magazine: Spring 2013, A special, bi-lingual issue of Oceanus Magazine that explores the causes and impacts of the release of radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

Fukushima and Ocean Radioactivity, the Official Magazine of the Oceanography Society

FAQ: Radiation from Fukushima

Evaluation of radiation doses and associated risk from the Fukushima nuclear accident to marine biota and human consumers of seafood (2012)


Alaska Senate Resources Committee; Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig Overview (pages 21-28 pdf)

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI)

Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (SitKa)


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Ketchikan, Alaska

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