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Category: Fukushima

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

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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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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