Ever since the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant three years ago, public fears about nuclear fallout have been high, both in Japan and increasingly in the United States. A scientist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution would like to channel that anxiety into information by enlisting the public to fund and participate in a project to monitor radiation levels along the West Coast, just as the isotopes ferried across the Pacific are projected to arrive this spring.
Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at Woods Hole, announced Tuesday the launch of ourradioactiveocean.com, a website that will allow people and communities to propose sampling sites along the Pacific coast.
Buesseler is quick to point out that the levels of radiation exposure predicted by a number of models is well below the federal regulations for acceptable radiation exposure in drinking water. The expected radiation exposure in waters off the West Coast range from 1 to 30 Becquerels per cubic meter-- far below the federal drinking water limit of 7,400 Becquerels per cubic meter.
He does not expect to find unsafe levels of radiation, but he thinks the levels should be measured to allay people’s fears and to contribute to science, allowing regulators and oceanographers to get a better handle on how ocean currents travel. He is specifically interested in parts of the northern United States and Alaska, because the radioactive isotopes are projected to arrive there first.
“Without data, it’s easy to speculate and alarm people,” Buesseler said. “I’m concerned about radioactivity being dangerous, but I want to know what those levels are, and my concern scales with those numbers. ... I think we owe it to the public to make those measurements and I think it’s a pity our government hasn’t taken this on directly.”
People who propose sampling sites will need to raise $100 in seed funding to move forward. Then, a fund-raising page will be set up to underwrite the full cost of testing—between $550 and $600—about one-third of which is necessary just to ship five gallons of water to the east coast. Once funds are raised to cover the testing, individuals will collect the samples and ship them to the Woods Hole laboratory, which can analyze between two and five samples per week.
To trace the path of radiation through the ocean, researchers measure the amount of two tell-tale radioactive isotopes. They measure the levels of cesium-134, which has a short half-life—half of it decays every two years. The sole source of cesium-134 in the ocean is from Fukushima. They also measure cesium-137, an isotope that has been in the oceans for half a century, dispersed from atomic weapons testing in the 1960s. The ratio can tell them how much of the radiation is caused by isotopes coming from Japan.
Buesseler is hoping that this can be a teaching moment that will remind people that there is already radiation in the ocean and that rather than react with fear, it is important to understand what exposures mean. He is hesitant to use the word “safe,” but said that when people learn the levels of radiation are similar to exposures people willingly expose themselves to—such as taking a transcontinental flight, living at high altitude, or getting a dental X-ray—they may be less susceptible to alarmist hype.
Correction: A previous version of this article used the incorrect units when describing radiation concentration. The correct units are becquerels per cubic meter.