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Fukushima Radiation Expected to Reach West Coast Soon

By Greg Richter   |  

Low levels of radiation from the March 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, should be reaching the west coast of the United States by April, and states and volunteers will be monitoring levels.

USA Today reports that the federal government doesn’t monitor radiation in ocean water, but the state of California does because of nearby nuclear reactors. Washington state also does not monitor ocean water, but volunteers are set to collect water samples and funds to pay for the testing, reports the Mukilteo Beacon in Washington.

Oregon park rangers regularly test seawater for Cesium 137 and iodine 131, which exists in low levels as a result of nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s.

Chemical oceanographer Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts is calling for more testing of the Pacific waters as the radiation approaches. But he doesn't want to sound like an alarmist.

"We can make predictions, we can do models. But unless you have results, how will we know it's safe?" Buesseler said.

A 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the Japanese coast on March 11, 2011, triggering a tsunami that knocked out power at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Three reactors went into meltdown, leaking radiation.

Cesium 134, which is a signature of the Fukushima meltdown, already has been detected on the coast of Alaska and Canada. It is expected to work its way south.

Cesium 134 has a half-life of two years, meaning that levels already have been reduced more than half since the radiation began its journey toward the U.S. coast.

Those volunteering to collect samples will send them to Buesseler's lab in Massachusetts for testing. His project will use crowd-sourced funding to pay for the testing.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that atmospheric radiation levels in Tokyo are at the same level as before the Fukushima accident and are below those in Paris and London.

The average radiation level in central Tokyo was 0.0339 microsieverts per hour in Shinjuku Ward on March 6, data from the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Public Health show. That's about the same as the day before the earthquake and tsunami.

That reading compares with 0.085 microsieverts in London and 0.108 microsieverts in Seoul on March 3, and 0.057 microsieverts in Paris on Feb. 27, according to a compilation of world monitoring sites on the website of the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Radiation occurs naturally in the environment. While a careful search could still reveal trace levels of Fukushima-linked radioactivity in Tokyo, it now barely registers over readings from background sources, such as solar particles, rocks and soil, said Kathryn Higley, who heads the nuclear engineering and radiation health physics department at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Other cities probably have higher radiation levels because of natural sources, she said.

Radiation levels in central Tokyo rose as high as 0.809 microsieverts per hour on March 15, 2011, about 24 times the day before the accident, prompting thousands of expatriates to flee Japan in the following months.

Last year's record number of foreign visitors to the
country and rising enrollment at international schools show how those concerns have abated, as Tokyo's radiation readings fall below those in other major cities.

Closer to the wrecked plant in Fukushima, levels remain high enough to prevent the return of many of the 160,000 residents evacuated after the nuclear accident. In Namie town about 10 kilometers northwest of the plant, levels were as high as 17.59 microsieverts per hour at 8 a.m on March 7, according to prefectural data.

If sustained for a full year, that would be 154 times the maximum possible dose of 1 millisievert per year recommended for public exposure by the International Commission on Radiological Protection. The high radiation has made Namie town part of an area of northeast Japan where it will be a "long time" before residents can return, according to a Feb. 18 presentation by Masako Ogawa, an environment ministry director.

Tests also still find levels higher than the government safety guidelines of 100 becquerels per kilogram of cesium in small amounts of fish caught in Japanese waters, a level that bars those fish from entering the food supply.

Health officials in Fukushima prefecture have tested 254,000 residents aged 18 or under at the time of the disaster and have detected 75 with definitive or suspected thyroid cancer as of Feb. 7, the Asahi Shimbun reported.

Hokuto Hoshi, a doctor involved in the prefectural survey, said the cases aren't thought to be connected to the Fukushima meltdowns because not enough time has elapsed since the accident for the cancer to develop, according to the Asahi.

Bloomberg News contributed to this report.

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Low levels of radiation from the March 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, should be reaching the west coast of the United States by April, and states and volunteers will be monitoring levels.
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