Dear Jon: Leading scientist balances alarm over Fukushima fallout
If there’s one person who knows the current conditions of the Pacific Ocean from Fukushima’s Diachi nuclear power plant, it's Dr. Ken Buesseler. He’s been studying groundwater and ocean samples in and around Fukushima since the accident in March of 2011. The concern now is that the plume of radioactive isotopes is set to finally reach Central Coast waters but there are no agencies to measure them.
Jerilyn emailed me, “Dear Jon, it would be great if you could interview Ken Buesseler. At least he's not paid for by the government.”
It's true Dr. Ken Buesseler is a leading independent oceanographer and scientist on ocean radiation. His funding comes from a philanthropic organization that funds the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.
If you read the blogs and numerous articles online, there’s concern of a lack of government testing from Fukushima in our air and ocean waters. This is leading to alarm and "hair-trigger" journalism on anything that smacks of the government planning for a need to treat the public for radiation sickness. But for the majority of people, they just want to know the truth. Many wonder how safe is it to eat Pacific fish or swim in the ocean?
I’ve reported here recently that some estimate radiation-related cancers from Fukushima fallout is possibly 1 in 100,000. When I posed this number to Buesseler, he felt that this number was high -- perhaps more like 1 in 10 million.
So just how alarmed should we be on the Central Coast? The following is a transcript of part of my interview with Buesseler.
Dear Jon: Should we be concerned with what you’ve found?
Buesseler: We’ve been going to Japan ever since the accident happened, starting in June of 2011, and since then we’ve been saying that the radiation levels are a concern particularly near Japan. By the time the radiation reaches our waters, whether it’s in the fish or the ocean, we’re going to see vastly lower levels of radiation.
Dear Jon: How long does it take to go from there to here?
Buesseler: For the radiation to travel the 5,000 miles in the ocean current, about two and half years.
Dear Jon: Has there been a significant radiation leakage event from Fukushima in the last three weeks?
Buesseler: Over the summer, there were a couple of discreet leaks but what we’re expecting to detect off the West Coast is from 2011, the peak of the accident. We have cesium already in the Pacific Ocean, people don’t realize, from testing in the '60s. So scientifically, the question is how quickly will that go up? How high will that go up? The predictions are rather low and are not of direct concern, but no one makes measurements of these isotopes along that coast. So it’s easy to be alarmed for something you’re not measuring or looking for. It’s so easy to cause alarm, one, about radioactivity, and two, things we don’t know about. No one is measuring so therefore we should be alarmed. I really try to take the approach that we shouldn’t trivialize the risks of radiation and shouldn’t be overly alarmed.
Dear Jon: So we shouldn’t be concerned about the fish we eat from the Pacific Ocean?
Buesseler: Right now, from what I’ve seen there are no levels of concern and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be looking for that. The story has been changing for these two years from a large release of cesium isotopes to a potential release of strontium 90. These are all relative risks that we face so I want to acknowledge that there are natural risks that we face in fish already, such as polonium 210 in those same fish. And I like to tell people, one lesson that is very clear here is that there is a connection about what’s happening on land with the groundwater near Fukushima and the ocean and that harbor. There is a direct exchange that can’t be changed and can’t be stopped. So there needs to be groups that look at both sides of this.
Dear Jon: What would you tell the public right now, is there a concern for our health given the Fukushima fallout?
Buesseler: With current conditions I’d say go swimming, go boating and eat the fish in the Pacific Ocean. I don’t have concerns. But they still need to be monitored. They’ve been going up for two years now. We’re expecting these levels to increase, but I’m also concerned there’s not support to do these types of analyses, so that’s why we have to rely on the public to help us with that.
So what can you do? The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute or WHOI has in the last two weeks put up a new website: www.ourradioactiveocean.org. On it you’ll find what you can do to choose radioactive testing sites on the Central Coast. The plan is for those wanting to provide ocean samples to have donors raise $550 for the testing kit for their chosen site. WHOI will then send participants the kit, so that samples can be gathered and sent to WHOI for testing. WHOI will then email results to the participants. At this time, sites in Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo have already been chosen.
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