Kelp along the US West Coast will be tested for Fukushima radiation in an upcoming study spearheaded by California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
The Kelp Watch 2014 project is led by CSULB biologist Steve Manley, an expert in marine algae and kelp who has studied the environmental effects of the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster triggered by a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that ravaged Japan's northeastern coast.
"The California kelp forest is a highly productive and complex ecosystem and a valuable state resource. It is imperative that we monitor this coastal forest for any radioactive contaminants that will be arriving this year in the ocean currents from Fukushima disaster," Manley said in a news release.
Nearly three years have passed since the nuclear incident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power station, enough time for radioactive cesium released into the sea to cross the Pacific Ocean and reach the US West Coast.
The overwhelming scientific consensus is that by now, any radioactive material released into the ocean in connection with Fukushima will have decayed or been diluted to such low concentrations that it will not pose a public health concern. But there are several unknowns, including how the radiation may affect marine life.
"I receive calls and emails weekly from concerned visitors and Californians about the effect of the Fukushima disaster on our California marine life," Manley said. "I tell them that the anticipated concentrations that will arrive are most likely very low but we have no data regarding its impact on our coastal ecosystem. Kelp Watch 2014 will provide an initial monitoring system at least in the short-term."
Kelp Watch 2014 is a collaboration between 22 academic institutions, government organizations and businesses that will take kelp samples from the entire California coastline. The sampling will begin this month and continue for the rest of the year.
"What I have attempted to do is to organize marine scientists and educators from up and down the coastline to collect a large amount of kelp several times a year so that we can ascertain the amount of radioactive material entering our kelp forests," Manley said, adding that he has been contacted by out of state scientists wanting to send samples from farther up the coastline in Washington state.
"Kelp is the perfect 'sentinel' organism for a project like this because it absorbs and concentrates things like radioactive material," Manley told The San Diego Union-Tribune. "Right now, the radioactivity from Fukushima has not reached here. If it does, we'll be able to measure it, even though it will be really diluted."
Matt Edwards, a research biologist at San Diego State University is one of about 50 scientists who are volunteering their time and resources to participate in Kelp Watch 2014, according to the Union-Tribune.
In looking for traces of Fukushima radiation in kelp, radioisotopes of cesium-134 and cesium-137 will be red flags.
"We don't know if we're going to find a signal of the radiation," Edwards told the Union-Tribune. "And I personally don't believe it'll represent a health threat if there is one. But it's worth asking whether there's a reason to be concerned about a disaster that occurred on the other side of the planet some time ago."
Chad Nelsen, environmental director at the San Clemente, Calif.-based Surfrider Foundation, told the Union-Tribune that finding traces of Fukushima radiation does not necessarily mean it will pose any risks to public health.
"There's been a lot of confusion between the levels of radiation that have been detected and levels that are harmful," Nelsen said. "So far, there have been no levels that are a real concern."
In some ways, radiation from the Fukushima incident has already reached North America. A previous study by Manley found tiny quantities of radioactive isotope iodine-131 in kelp off the Southern California coast. Manley discovered this less than a month after the Fukushima incident, the martial likely traveled across the ocean by air before getting washed into the sea by a rainstorm, according to the Union-Tribune.
As the year goes by, kelp will be collected along the California coast, dried, crushed into a fine powder and then analyzed for radiation.
Kai Vetter, the Head of Applied Nuclear Physics at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will be conducting the radiation tests.
In an interview with CBS San Francisco, Vetter said that Fukushima radiation has reached the West Coast in the past, but that it has disappeared almost as soon as it arrived.
He suggested that any cesium that is in the environment because of Fukushima will simply become a fact of life.
"I mean we are living in a world which is radioactive," Vetter said. "We still see Cesium-137 back from the atmospheric tests in the '40s and '50s. We still see that. It's, in a way, part of our natural background now."
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