Radioactive contamination from Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster may reach the U.S. West Coast within weeks, according to a report released Monday. But researchers said the low contamination levels would likely cause no environmental or human harm.
The new findings were presented in Hawaii by Ken Buesseler, a chemical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, during a meeting of the American Geophysical Union's Ocean Sciences Section. The research followed a 2013 paper predicting that a plume of radioactive water could reach the West Coast by April 2014. The plume is fallout from the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown that followed a tsunami and earthquake.
Buesseler's research indicates that the prediction was correct. But, like California health officials, he said he doesn't think the radioactive material will cause harm in the U.S. "I worry about the health hazards around Fukushima, but those fisheries have been closed," Buesseler told The Huffington Post. "By the time that material gets across the ocean, it's been so diluted."
Still, he said, there's no way to be sure without waiting and testing. "We are not predicting that the levels will be a direct human health concern, but we can't confirm that without samples," Buesseler said.
To do so, Buesseler founded Our Radioactive Ocean, a citizen-fueled research project that collects water samples along the West Coast and tests them for radioactivity. Buesseler launched the project after learning that there is no federal or state water testing planned.
"The U.S. government should really be doing this kind of work but they're not," Buesseler said. "We've tried. We've gone to Washington, D.C. We talked to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), but they don't do radioactivity work. The Department of Energy has excellent facilities for radioactivity work, but they don't study the ocean. So the only way this was getting done is if we went out there and did it."
Buesseler and his team, along with volunteers, will continue collecting and gathering water samples as the radioactive plume arrives. "We'll post the results on our site as we get them," he promised, estimating the team would process two to three samples per week.
While Buesseler encouraged testing by scientists and government agencies, he discouraged the public from becoming alarmed by viral videos and Internet sites that appear to show increased levels of radiation at California beaches.
"While the concern is laudable, I think there is a lack of complete understanding of what they're measuring," Buesseler explained. He pointed to one video that showed a Geiger counter -- a device used to measure radioactivity -- displaying high numbers at a beach south of San Francisco. "In that area, there are thorium-bearing minerals that naturally give off radiation."
Buesseler said he and his team have discovered radiative particles, but it's is not from Fukushima. He said his team has detected cesium-137, an isotope with a long half-life left over from old nuclear testing.
"When we start finding cesium-134," he said, referencing the rapidly decaying isotope associated with the 2011 disaster, "then we'll know it's Fukushima."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to radioactive contamination and the radioactive plume simply as "radiation."