Four years later, Fukushima radiation still assaults the West Coast


More than four-and-a-half years later, the devastated Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan continues to send out the warning signs of just how bad the 2011 meltdown at the site truly has been. After all this time — not to mention all this distance — scientists continue to find radiation from the Japanese plant, which was devastated first by a major earthquake and then the subsequent tsunami, assaulting the Pacific waters off the United States. Here’s their explanation for what is going on:

Researchers have detected 110 new contaminated sites off the American Pacific coast, including the highest levels of radioactive contamination around 2,500 km west of San Francisco. That’s still 500 times below US government safety limits for drinking water, so there’s no need to panic even if you’ve recently been swimming or fishing in the Pacific. But it’s an interesting insight into how nuclear waste spreads, and where the currents that govern our oceans have been moving.

“These new data are important for two reasons,” said lead researcher Ken Buesseler from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “First, despite the fact that the levels of contamination off our shores remain well below government-established safety limits for human health or to marine life, the changing values underscore the need to more closely monitor contamination levels across the Pacific.”

“Second, these long-lived radioisotopes will serve as markers for years to come for scientists studying ocean currents and mixing in coastal and offshore waters,” he added.

Researchers have been continually monitoring the waters throughout the Pacific since the 9.0 magnitude earthquake caused the Fukushima nuclear plant to experience full meltdown in March 2011, on the look-out for radiation levels that may pose a risk to human health or the environment.

How do scientists know that the radiation levels they’re finding on the U.S. side of the Pacific come from the Fukushima accident? Their research is finding elevated levels of cesium-134, which reports note is a kind of a ‘fingerprint’ of the Japanese meltdown. When scientists find the presence of this cesium-134, they can be confident that Fukushima was the source.

Despite the breezy proclamations that these radioactive isotopes can help scientists track ocean currents, I find this latest news very disturbing — and so should you. For one thing, as the news reports properly note, the continued presence of cesium-134 is a sign that roughly 56 months after the nuclear disaster, Japanese officials remain unable to stop the badly damaged plant from leaking radioactive material into the Pacific.

And more importantly, I would not take as much solace in the fact that radioactivity is below the levels that the U.S. government deems to be safe. The reality — and I can back this up with more than 25 years of experience as an environmental attorney tackling radiation issues — is that there is no known safe level of radiation exposure. The presence of cesium-134 off the U.S. West Coast, at any level, shows that radioactive contamination is much, much worse than that in the waters directly off Japan — and also that this hazardous form of pollution was far worse in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe.

Let’s not forget, this news comes at a time when the Pacific Ocean has already been under enormous environmental stress, from unusually warm waters related to climate change, from a gigantic mass of plastic and other floating debris, and from other forms of pollution. A jolt of radiation from Fukushima is certainly the last thing that Pacific needs at this point. And we don’t need to be using radioactive pollution — at any level — to track the ocean currents. We need to start phasing out the nuclear plants that pose the risk of another Fukushima.

Read more about the radioactive contamination of the Pacific off the U.S. West Coast:

Learn the story about how I fought Big Oil on its radioactive pollution in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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