Volunteers to test for radiation in Mukilteo waters

By Sara Bruestle | Mar 05, 2014

Radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster has not yet reached waters along the Pacific coast, though scientists predict it will get here as soon as April.

Ken Buesseler, a chemical oceanographer, said no U.S. or international agencies are monitoring the spread of radiation here, so he has volunteers monitoring at 14 sites – including Mukilteo Lighthouse Park.

Buesseler, with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, reported that coastal monitoring sites in California and Washington have detected no traces of radioactive cesium from the Fukushima nuclear plant – “but models predict we will some time in 2014.”

“Radiation can be dangerous, but not at the levels that are being predicted off the West Coast of North America,” Buesseler said. “That being said, it makes sense to monitor.”

Since 2011, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and its Japanese partners have been gathering and testing samples, some from as close as 1/2 mile from the damaged reactors – but now they need new samples.

As part of the Our Radioactive Ocean project, volunteers in Washington, Oregon, California, Hawaii, Alaska and Canada collect seawater with a sampling kit at their site and ship them to his Woods Hole lab.

Terry Preshaw, of Mukilteo, said she got involved in Buesseler's monitoring project because she is concerned about “scaremongering” on the Internet, with some websites saying that there are high levels of Fukushima radiation on its way here.

“My concern is debunking scaremongers,” she said. “I think this is an excellent way to do that.

“I believe in hard science, and empirical data says a lot to me. I’m hoping it will say... that we’re not being inundated with Fukushima radiation.”

Preshaw offered to collect samples from Mukilteo’s beach and provide the $100 required to get a Mukilteo site up on Woods Hole’s website. Mukilteo was added to the list last week.

“People are more likely to go to the beach (at Lighthouse Park) and be in the water,” Preshaw said of the new site. “So if there’s an exposure issue, that would definitely be the place I would like to know about.”

It costs $550 to test each sample, including the sampling kit. Preshaw said several others from Mukilteo are also interested in the project and in raising funds.

When Mukilteo’s site gets the necessary funding, Preshaw said she would collect seawater at Lighthouse Park to help Buesseler monitor for radiation contamination.

Scientists are testing for two radioactive isotopes of the element cesium, which are formed in nuclear events – cesium-137 and cesium-134.

Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years, which means its radioactivity decays very slowly, whereas cesium-134 decays rapidly with a two-year half-life.

While cesium-137 is still detectible from nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s and 1960s, any traces of cesium-134 that are detected could only have come from Fukushima.

At the Woods Hole lab, scientists have completed testing for cesium on eight samples, spanning from San Diego to the Washington coast.

All eight samples show cesium-137 at “below detection” levels, Buesseler said. As for cesium-134, “we found no detectable 134Cs, so no evidence yet that the Fukushima plume has reached the coast.”

Since the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in Japan, fallout, runoff and continued leaks from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant have sparked fears of radiation impacts to fisheries, marine and human life.

“It’s hard not to be concerned about this, because Fukushima had a pretty significant nuclear event that has created nuclear contamination, and no one disputes that,” Preshaw said, “but what we don’t know is what does that actually mean on this coast? What are we really looking at in terms of contamination?

“This is just a way to monitor and ensure that the worst case scenario is definitely not unfolding here, but we won’t know until we get results.”

Preshaw, who majored in biology and has an interest in marine biology, said she researched the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Ken Buesseler, and she liked what she found.

“This is someone who wants to do good science,” Preshaw said. “He’s not all wound up and scaremongering.

“It’s really important for communities like ours to reach out and get scientific testing, so that we can be scientifically sound in our dismissal of scaremongering.”

For more information, or to help fund testing at the Mukilteo site, go to www.ourradioactiveocean.org.

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