Fukushima Cesium Traces Approaching California – Part I

Breaking News this past week – Trace Amounts of Radioactive Cesium from Fukushima Daiichi have been reported  off the coast of California.  See the story on Yahoo News here.

In January of this year a wave of panic swept across the Pacific Rim – based on unfounded rumors of this happening.  Now that it is actually closer to happening, it is important for people to understand it in perspective.  To begin, the levels detected off the coast of Northern California are very low – millions of times lower than levels being detected in the ocean off of Fukushima Daiichi.  It takes specialized and very expensive equipment to detect the subtle levels recently measured 100 miles off of Eureka California.  Read the local story in the Northern California Press Democrat here.

When false stories and rumors circulated in January, I wrote this blog post to show that elevated radiation levels on a California beach were not from Japan.    I have been one of many people and groups that have been keeping an independent eye on things since events of  March 11 2011.   Why is independent monitoring important?  For one thing the U.S. Government is not operating any overt ocean monitoring program.  In Japan, the breakdown of monitoring systems due to the disaster, combined with political and other considerations, led to an information vacuum.   That vacuum was largely filled by  independent and nonprofit Safecast.  People are learning that they cannot count on governments to provide all the information they want or need.

Some countries, notably Germany, Finland and other European countries, have developed improved radiation monitoring systems since they were hit by Chernobyl fallout in 1986.  The United States was relatively  isolated from that event, and has not had a major nuclear disaster since the Three Mile Island incident in 1979.   While there is some limited government-funded monitoring of airborne radiation performed in the U.S. by the EPA Radnet system and CEMP, ocean monitoring just isnʻt on the agenda.

Enter Dr. Ken Buesseler.  Dr. Buesseler is considered to be one of the worldʻs leading experts on radioactivity in our oceans.  He has a PH.D. in Marine Chemistry from MIT and has studied both the naturally occurring radioactive elements in the worldʻs oceans, and also the effects of nuclear weapons testing and the Chernobyl incident.  He is eminently qualified to measure and interpret measurements in this type of monitoring program.  Dr. Bueseler has a well equipped lab with some very  sensitive equipment.   Funding for his program is coming from interested stakeholders, people like you and me who are interested enough to invest in the project.  The fact that he is not funded by government or industry gives him some insulation from pressures that can come with grants and contracts.

As a side note, I believe it is in the publics interest to have Dr. Buesseler engaged in this monitoring program.  I am encouraging people to participate, as I am,  in the  sampling project.  I am participating  by pooling resources with others to provide samples from Bodega Head, Sonoma County, California, and Maui, Hawaiʻi .  Our August test in California did not show anything from Fukushima yet.   The data from seawater we collected in August from Baby Beach on Mauiʻs North Shore is expected to be available soon.  The results of these and other readings are posted at Dr. Buesselerʻs website at http://www.ourradioactiveoceans.org.

How do we tell if radiation we measure is from Fukushima Daiichi?  Dr. Buesseler and others  have monitored the effects of above ground nuclear testing for some time now.  Cesium 137 and Cesium 134 are two radionuclides that were deposited during the atmospheric testing, and are also flowing into the ocean from the damaged complex at Fukushima Daiichi.  Cesium 137 has a half life of 30 years.  Cesium 134 has a half life of 2 years.   Cesium 137 from nuclear testing days is still detectable in very low concentrations, while the 134 is almost undetectable.  Dr. Buesseler believes the only new source of Cesium 134 today is from Fukushima Daiichi.  We have known for some time that it would be the marker that let us know when radionuclides from the Japan reactor meltdowns had reached North America.  Until now, all samples taken along Californiaʻs long coast have shown results in line with pre-Fukushima Daiichi conditions.

What does this mean for people and the environment?  Many scientists, including Dr. Buesseler, believe that the health risk is very low or negligible from these low level readings.  Health risk from radiation is a controversial and hotly debated topic.  Many scientists believe that, even though the risk may be extremely small, the risk from radiation exposure (even at small doses) is not zero.  This understanding is now the official position of the BEIR VII Committee of the National Academies of Sciences.  If this is indeed true, then there is even some risk from natural sources of radiation that humans have been exposed to for millennia.  Indeed, the natural Potassium 40 in ocean water exists in significantly higher concentrations that the radioactive Cesium in the sample off of Eureka.  Weʻll get into this further in future posts.

Coming up:  What is a becquerel?  How do we gain confidence in the data?

From around the web:   Dr. Buesseler on Reddit      Safecast     Our Radioactive Oceans

 

 

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Radiation Detection in the News

Radiation Detection is not generally a subject of much interest in the popular media, except during major events such as the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns of March 2011, Chernobyl May 1986, Three Mile Island March 1979.   Today, news of radioactive Cesium approaching California was reported by Dr. Ken Buesseler on Reddit. His announcement produced a lot of good questions and answers – and undoubtedly a preview of some of the controversy that will arrive with aqueous “fallout.”  I think it’s interesting that Dr. Buesseler chose non-traditional media to make this announcement.  It kind of fits because Ken is approaching the whole project in a non-traditional way.  He found little interest for his project from traditional funding sources or from the US Government (which does not have an overt ocean radiation monitoring program).  More on his project here.

There is some radiation detection news in the popular media too recently:  Radiation sensors are going off at landfills due to radioactive materials brought to the surface by fracking activities.  The Pittsburg Post Gazette covers one approach to dealing with it here.

For background on this issue, NORM (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials) have been with us for millions of years, but they become concentrated by various processes in the oil and gas drilling, fracking, transportation and refinement arena.   Wikipedia covers some of this here.  The people most directly affected are the workers in this industry, so radiation detection is important to help minimize exposure.  Then there is the question of whether the byproducts and concentrated NORM materials in landfills will have long term impacts on the water table etc.  There is much debate about these issues.

In France, some people armed with Geiger Counters say it’s time to redevelop a historic and interesting nuclear testing site just 14 miles from the Eiffel Tower, covered by NY Times here.

In England, radiation levels have dropped to low enough levels to allow the dismantling of a tower that protected the public during a serious fire at Windscale in Cumbria, 1957.  The Guardian reports that without it much of Northern England could have become a “nuclear wasteland.”  Read the story here.

 

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On Geiger Counters, Freedom of Information, and Democracy

 

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Orapin Sythe logging radiation levels in Washington DC

A few weeks ago I found myself in Washington DC.

I was engaged in activities I think the activist Founders of the USA would deem profoundly American – though the issues are ones they probably could not  imagine in their day.   The event involved democracy, freedom of information, new technologies, and, yes, Geiger Counters.

Since Fukushima Daiichi events, many Americans have been disturbed by the lack of data provided by governments on any radiation impacts.  There have been a lot of problems with the EPA Radnet monitoring system, and people find it confusing.   See Forbes Magazine article on Radnet.  No U.S. agency is charged with monitoring radiological safety of the oceans, or the food that comes from it.   Assurances that everything is okay would be better received if there were data to back it up.

IMI NRDC SAFECAST

NRDC Hosted the Event in Washington DC

Security around nuclear materials is also a big concern these days.

Many of the individuals involved in the DC event are trusted representatives of well known (and respected), independent, non profit organizations.  There were also representatives from Academia.  And there were US Government Agencies charged with protecting public health, safety and security.

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Natural Resources Defense Council  Rooftop, Washington DC – Geiger Counter Workshop Participants

The common interests of these groups revolve around things nuclear:  preventing bad things from happening, and dealing with the problems if/when bad things do happen.  A complete list of organizations represented is contained in this blog post by Bemnet Alamayehu at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)  .   NRDC sponsored the event with support from the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The eventʻs outstanding success was due largely to the good reputation NRDC has achieved over many years by working in the public interest on complex environmental and security issues.   The NY Times calls NRDC  “One of the nation’s most powerful environmental groups.”  NRDC has for decades supported the important role of independent citizens in radiation monitoring programs.  In the nuclear arena there is also tremendous goodwill and respect afforded NRDC for their innovation and success in supporting international nuclear safety and arms control programs.   I have personally been a fan, volunteer and a supporter of NRDC for decades.  Earlier work with NRDC took me to Post-Chernobyl Russia and Belarus to support communities in an independent radiation monitoring program – at a time the old USSR (under which it was illegal for citizens to possess a geiger counter) was crumbling .

The form this particular exercise in democracy took, and how it unfolded on this day, would not have been possible without the participation of the good people from Safecast, who designed the system and the instruments we used, facilitated the detector building workshop, and co-facilitated the deployment and mapping exercise, with NRDC.  Safecast developed a technologically advanced system for rapidly compiling radiation data in response to the March 2011 events at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan.  Safecast covered the Washington DC event at this blog post on their website.  I have also been a supporter, volunteer, technology provider and advisor to Safecast since April 2011.

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These “Nanos” were built by workshop participants the first day of the workshop.

To get to the point, we basically hand built a lot of the Safecast “Nano”  radiation detectors.  They are uniquely equipped with satellite GPS receivers, specialized sensors, and micro SD card data loggers.  We fanned out around the centers of power and historic sites in the nationʻs capitol, logged radiation levels, and then published the data to the world wide web – all within 32 hours.  The data can now be viewed on the Safecast iPhone App (available free at the Apple Store)   We also installed a real-time radiation monitoring station at NRDC Washington D.C. Headquarters, just a few blocks from the White House.

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Radiation Map of Washington DC around Washington Mall, White House, Congress. Note slightly elevated readings due to granite around the War Memorial.

Could our activities in any way compromise National Security?  I have asked myself that question many times over the years – when I have been asked to become involved in community monitoring projects.  I could not imagine any problems, and have never seen anything but positive impact on communities.  Apparently the Department of Homeland Security and National Nuclear Security Agency agreed.  They sent representatives to observe and participate.

Freedom of Information is a basic tenant of Democracy, and also recognized internationally as a basic human right.  Informed citizenry is considered to be a foundation of strong democracies.  Security is something all communities naturally strive for.  The overwhelming majority of us want our cities, our children, to be safe.

The more radiation detectors and data out there the safer we are, I believe.  If anything unusual surfaces, we all want to know about it – and to feel empowered to take appropriate action.  The good news is that radiation levels around the White House, the US Congress, the Washington Mall all look pretty normal (see color coded map above).  The slightly elevated readings around the World War II Memorial are due to naturally occurring material in the granite monuments.

More events are in the planning stage.   Your city may be next.  Stay tuned.

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Dianne DiʻArrigo and Mary Olsen of NIRS, building their Safecast Nano Radiation Data Loggers

 

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Surfer’s Beach Half Moon Bay Radiation Investigation, IMI

We continue our investigation into the beautiful mysterious black sand at Surferʻs Beach.  This video documents our visit to the beach, and what we have found so far.

Link to Geiger Counter Bulletin YouTube Channel

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Update on Surferʻs Beach Radioactivity and a Message from California Office of Emergency Services

Opinions expressed in this article reflect only the authorʻs viewpoint.

Earlier blogposts here identified elevated radiation levels at Surferʻs Beach in Half Moon Bay as “not from Fukushima.”  After a trip to the site and further analysis, I stand by that conclusion.  I will publish more on that here soon.   I hope this alleviates concern across the Pacific Rim, because it should.

Independent Safecast has put together a compilation of information on Fukushima Daiichi impacts on the ocean here.

California State Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) has informed me that California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is doing further testing on samples taken from Half Moon Bay. They will post the results here.

I applaud CDPH for taking a precautionary approach.

I think this is a good idea for a number of reasons.  Most importantly, it will help build trust that this beautiful  beach is a safe place for children.  I have requested further details of the nature of the testing.

I hope that a full chemical and spectral analysis will be done to determine without doubt that these naturally occurring radionuclides are native to this beach and not introduced.

Part of my cautious approach to this is the public knowledge that radioactive materials were dumped at the Farallon Islands, approximately 35 miles offshore from Half Moon Bay.  There are also other sites in the Bay Area  contaminated with TENORM materials, notably Treasure Island and Hunterʻs Point.

Further testing will help build public confidence that California is a place where transparency thrives, where our public officials are proactive in protecting the public health, and where our beaches are safe.  I hope and expect that will be the conclusion, and again thank CDPH for further testing.

CalOES asked me to post this message:

“There is no public health risk at California beaches due to radioactivity related to events at Fukushima . The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is not aware of any recent activity at Fukushima, or any new data that would cause elevated radioactivity on California shores from the Fukushima incident.  Recent tests by the San Mateo County public health department and CDPH show that elevated levels of radiation at Half Moon Bay are due to naturally occurring materials and not radioactivity associated with the Fukushima incident.

The volume of water in the Pacific Ocean has a significant diluting effect on radionuclides that are present and it is not anticipated that the concentration will increase in the waters off of the west coast. CDPH has collected and will be analyzing sand samples from Half Moon Bay.  Results of the analysis will be posted on the CDPH Radiologic Health (RHB) website (http://www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/Pages/RHB-RadReport.aspx) as soon as the analysis is completed.”

Other information:

CDPH also performs routine air and milk samples as required by California law.  Slightly elevated air and milk samples were found during the initial phases of the Fukushima incident (March 2011) and the results were reported on CDPH RHB’s website (see link above). CDPH continues to monitor air, milk, kelp, and fish samples. CDPH’s monitoring is part of its on-going environmental monitoring program and will be publishing data on the CDPH RHB website by the end of this week.

CDPH has been in contact with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and they are monitoring the situation with the nuclear reactors in Japan.   The FDA as well as the private entity Woods- Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have monitored fish from the Pacific and while minute levels of cesium were found in blue fin tuna most recent tests show even those small levels are declining. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA)  is the coordinating Agency for response to international emergencies involving radioactive materials and the FDA is responsible for food safety.  FDA’s  hotline number is 888-723-3366.  The USEPA, via their RadNet system,  monitors the nation’s air, drinking water, precipitation, and pasteurized milk to determine levels of radiation in the environment. RadNet sample analyses and monitoring results provide baseline data on background levels of radiation in the environment and can detect increased radiation from radiological incidents, such as the Fukushima incident.   You may visit the USEPA RadNet website at http://www.epa.gov/radnet/ and this site has a link regarding public questions.

Some additional useful links:

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) addresses threats to coastal areas. You can see information about their tracking of debris from Japan at:

http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris/

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provides publically available reports on leakage and sea water radioactivity near the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The last report can be found at: http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/2013/japan-basic-policy6.html

The state of Oregon continues to test drinking water, rain water and sea water for radionuclides that could be associated with Fukushima.

https://public.health.oregon.gov/HealthyEnvironments/RadiationProtection/RadiationMonitoring/watermonitoring/Pages/waterdata.aspx

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From Half Moon Bay to Fukushima – Managing Fear, Taking Appropriate Action

A good Geiger Counter can be an invaluable tool.  It can tell you a lot.  With one, you can see what is invisible to human eyes and other human sensory systems.   You can then use that information to take appropriate action if you see something unusual.  Knowing that you have that ability can empower you – and give you peace of mind.

The humble Geiger Counter, used with some skill and knowledge, can save lives and prevent suffering.   It can also be used as a tool for learning about the natural world around us, which is truly fascinating.

But Geiger Counters give you a limited view at relatively low cost – only a peak into that invisible realm.  The veil becomes lifted, but you have to use some scientific method, understand the rules, sometimes consult other instruments, to get a definitive picture of a given situation.

Interpreting or misinterpreting what you are detecting can be a learning experience, and, when you share it on YouTube, well….a lot of us got a learning experience over the holidays.

The YouTube video of  a Geiger Counter on a beach at Half Moon Bay went viral.  It was viewed over 600,000 times in a couple of weeks.  Speculation was that unusual readings  meant something from Fukushima had arrived on the West Coast.  People along coastlines throughout the Pacific Rim became concerned.

It was not just the video of  an innocent guy, a concerned citizen, finding something radioactive and jumping to conclusions.   It was the combination of that, combined with a lot of fear mongering  by other people (not connected to him)  on various websites – about crazy scenarios unfolding at Fukushima Daiichi.  Azby Brown at Safecast Japan covered some of those stories here.  I asked people to consider not forwarding email or web links that donʻt ring true here.

During this period I heard reports of people taking potassium iodide, duct taping themselves into rooms, and refraining from eating anything from the ocean, or even fresh vegetables.

I monitor for radiation daily and I volunteer for Safecast.  I trust their data and their team to be rock solid.  I knew there was no massive radiation event happening.  A close friend and trusted partner, Steve Weiss, lives on Half Moon Bay – near the beach in question.   He and I have been working together in the radiation detection field for  over 35 years.  We were designers of the original Inspector almost 25 years ago.  Reports of beach contamination were based an Inspector reading.  Thus we felt an added sense of responsibility in this situation.   Steve rushed me a bag of sand from from one of the areas of concern on the beach.  I analyzed it  and reported the data to Safecast and to this blogpost.

Steve Weiss taking radiation measurements Half Moon Bay

Steve Weiss taking radiation measurements with an Inspector Alert Geiger Counter, Half Moon Bay

Sean Bonner of Safecast also did some research and posted his findings here.  There was a lot of Trans-California and Trans-Pacific collaboration going on.  A few days later, Health Officials confirmed our preliminary conclusions, as reported by Half Moon Bay Patch here.

Dan Sythe in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, December 2011

Dan Sythe on the beach in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, with multi channel analyzer, December 2011

Why did we have confidence that the elevated readings were not from Fukushima?   Hard earned experience, and different technology.   I traveled to inhabited areas of Fukushima Prefecture with Sean and other Safecasters in December 2011, carrying a multichannel analyzer.  The spectra on the sand on the beach in Iwaki did not look anything like the sand at Half Moon Bay.  See the spectra below.

Sample of deck material from contaminated area of Fukushima Prefecture

Spectra from Fukushima Prefecture.  Note Cesium 137.

This is the spectra from the beach sample

Spectra from Half Moon Bay.  Note Radium 226 and Thorium 232

I guess the moral of this holiday story is donʻt believe everything you hear on the internet, and also remember that a Geiger Counter can only give you a limited view of a new situation.  Try not to jump to conclusions until you have all the information.  There are many sources of radiation in medicine, in homes and workplaces, and in the natural environment.

The spectra of radioactive isotopes are now well documented in Fukushima.  The data from Geiger Counters are invaluable over there, and there is no need to constantly collect new spectral data.  Half Moon Bay was a completely different situation – and it took some other tools and some research to sort it out.

I hope everyone knows that Potassium Iodide should not be taken lightly.  There are adverse reactions reported, and it should not be taken by pregnant women.  Itʻs value is actually controversial.  If there is value in taking it, itʻs only when radioactive forms of iodine are present in the air, food or beverages.  To my knowledge, this is not an issue at this point in time.

Iʻm very heartened that many people with diverse interests and concerns worked hard over the holidays to counter the apocalyptic internet reports about Fukushima Daiichi problems, and to help the general population calm down.

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On Fukushima Fears and Sensationalistic Reporting

There is an incredible amount of disinformation going on these days about Fukushima Daiichi.  A lot of people are frightened by it and they call me or email me, wanting to know what I think about it.

The situation at Fukushima Daiichi is tragic and difficult.  My heart goes out to the people working there, the people who have been displaced…and those who continue to live in the shadow of this disaster.  Itʻs a sad situation.  Iʻve been to Japan 8 or 9 times since the disaster, and Iʻm hoping I can find new and better ways to help the situation there.

Without downplaying the danger and difficulties, it is important to note that some people are exaggerating the situation at Fukushima Daiichi, for unknown reasons, in very dramatic ways.   I am bombarded these days with links to websites with apocalyptic messages of imminent disaster, which fortunately do not seem to be based on reality.

Itʻs not that we should not remain vigilant, but that we should not believe everything we see and hear.  Stress affects human health.

For a reality check I always look to the people at Safecast.   They do an incredible job of staying in touch with the people of Fukushima…many of them are Fukushima people.  They have mapped over 13 million data points since the disaster, and they are constantly analyzing radiation data in Fukushima Prefecture.  Incidentally, if you want to do something positive to help the situation, I strongly recommend donating to Safecast.

On the rumor that Unit 3 steam is foreboding of an imminent disaster, I found this useful analysis by the Simply Info research team, which says that the situation at Unit 3 is relatively stable at this time.

On rumors that starfish health on the West Coast is being affected by radiation from Fukushima I found these articles, which provide at least an alternate viewpoint to that scenario: Deep Sea News.

On the report that radiation at a beach in Half Moon Bay is contaminated by radiation from Fukushima, Safecast did this analysis, which provided an alternate and reasonable explanation.   I personally tested a sample of sand from the beach and am convinced there is no link to Fukushima.  See my blog post on that here.

I have lost a lot of sleep in the months since the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, mostly out of concern for the children of Fukushima.  Iʻm not losing as much sleep about it now.   Well, maybe I am – because Iʻm responding late at night to emails from friends who are frightened by the rumors.

Itʻs not that I trust the governments of the world to tell me the truth.   Part of my family lived downwind from the Nevada Test Site.  Iʻve known and worked with people affected by the nuclear age since my youth.  Many of them were unsupported by the governments and companies who were responsible for their pain.  I was a downwinder as a child.   Iʻm a natural born skeptic about these things.

I think I am more comfortable than many people, even though I live in the midst of the same rumors, because of my scientific curiosity. I monitor radiation on a daily basis at my lab – I have for many years.   The levels I see here in Sebastopol California look very much the same as they did 27 years ago –  when I first started monitoring at this location.   Iʻm expanding my lab to look at seaweed, food, soil, air.  I am indeed concerned – especially for the most vulnerable of our human family, the children and unborn.    I do want independent verifiable information to feel comfortable.

At the same time, Iʻm increasingly concerned about the effects of these terrible rumors that have no basis in fact.  I highly recommend that people check out their sources of these apocalyptic messages before they forward them – and add unnecessary fear and stress to their friendʻs lives.  Please consider doing a little research before you hit the Forward button.

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California Beach Radiation Not From Fukushima

A lot of concern has been expressed about recent reports and videos showing high levels of radiation on a beach in Half Moon Bay, just South of Pillar Point Harbor.  It has been attributed  to Fukushima.  Local officials have been quoted as saying they donʻt know what it is, but donʻt worry about it.  See local story.

Here is what we have learned so far:   The radioactive areas of the beach seem to be associated with dark sand below the high tide level.   The levels detected are about 5 to 10 times what you would normally expect to find on a beach.

The radionuclides are in the NORM class of radioactive substances, not from Fukushima. NORM stands for Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material.   We put a sample in a Multichannel Analyzer and found Radium 226 and Thorium 232.  See the measured spectra below.

This is the spectra from the beach sample

This is the spectra from the beach sample

If the sand were contaminated by radiation from Fukushima it would show Cesium 137. See spectra below from contaminated area of Fukushima Prefecture.  The same instrument is identifying Cesium 137 rather than Radium and Thorium.

Sample of deck material from contaminated area of Fukushima Prefecture

Sample of deck material from contaminated area of Fukushima Prefecture

 

The picture below is a geiger counter measuring the activity in a sample bag of the sand. The radiation level is elevated, but roughly equivalent to some granite counter top material from Brazil.

 

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This is a geiger counter with 2 inch pancake detector measuring the activity in the sand sample

 

Whether this material is naturally occurring at this beach or not remains a question. There are also reports that a pipeline was once at this location.  We hope the State will do further testing to determine the origin and full nature of the hot spots on the beach. But we are confident that it is not related to Fukushima, based on the spectral signature.  We expect more news later today.

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Fukushima Daiichi News

 

Inside Daiichi

Spent fuel removal at Unit 4 is in progress.

Safecast equipped a vehicle with one of their Nano sensors that was allowed onsite at Daiichi.  Here is the collected data.

NHK did a video report on the conditions workers are dealing with at Daiichi.   View it here.

IMI is offering special holiday pricing on radiation detectors for people who want to send one to Fukushima communities through Safecast.  The same discount is also extended to instruments to be shipped to people in Japan.  Enter HELPJAPAN as shopping cart code to get 20% discount.  More on this on IMI homepage.

IMI is also offering special pricing for Nano kits, and free Japan delivery,  for people who would like to send one to Fukushima communities through Safecast.  Details here.

Safecast has now collected data well beyond Japan, with some data coming in from all seven continents.  More on that here.

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