Researchers with the University of California, Long Beach, are taking kelp samples along the western shores of America to see if any measurable levels of radioactivity from the leaking nuclear power plants in Japan are reaching America.
So far, there’s nothing.
Scientists have been awaiting the time until they could begin studying marine life after power plants in Fukushima, Japan, were destroyed in the March 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
Massive amounts of radiation were released in the partial meltdowns of the reactors — and continue to leak from storage tanks — into the ocean and are slowly making their way east. It was the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.
More than 40 test samples will be taken; including one off the coast from McKinleyville and another at Coos Bay, Ore. Most samples are being extracted from kelp forests along California; other locations include the northwestern Olympic Peninsula in Washington, a spot on Vancouver Island, two in Northern British Columbia and one off Kodiak, Alaska. Other sites are in Hawaii, Guam and Mexico.
Kelp will be collected off a site on the Chilean coast to serve as a reference.
The study, called Kelp Watch 2014, began last month and will continue through the year.
UCLB biologist Steve Manley, an expert in marine algae and kelp, said he gets phone calls on a weekly basis asking about the effects of Fukushima’s radioactivity on marine life, particularly foodstuff that is garnered from the ocean.
Most scientists, he said, believe any material released by the incident will have decayed or been diluted to such low concentrations it won’t post a public health concern. Currently, it doesn’t appear as if any radiation levels have reached the coast of North America, Manley said.
In Oregon, radiation tests are conducted by the Albacore Commission, as tuna travel thousands of miles as they traverse the Pacific Ocean and radiation concentrates in their fat, making it easy to test.
As of last August, radioactivity levels in tuna tested by the commission indicated it was at expected — and safe — levels for fish that swim through waters that were used in the 1940s and 1950s for nuclear testing.
Additionally, radioecologist Delvan Neville of Oregon State University said last year that tuna collected had radioactivity that merely reflected the expected background levels. His department will analyze albacore and other species this year, he said.
Researchers in California started collecting kelp samples last fall when they knew radiation would have had enough time to cross the ocean.
Kelp was selected as its species range all along the coasts in both hemispheres, and its photosynthetic action at the surface of the ocean enable it to absorb cesium-134 and cesium-137, which was deposited in rainfall atop ocean waves after the meltdown in Japan. There are some 500 species of marine life directly associated with kelp, making it easier to extrapolate the possible effect of radioactivity in both the forests and sea life.
It is important to note, too, that humans are exposed to harmless background radiation on a daily basis.
The natural radioactivity level in kelp tissue is dominated by the naturally-occurring isotope potassium-40, in anything containing potassium — including most organic matter and many minerals. In kelp tissue, the levels of potassium-40 are around 4,000 becquerels per kilogram, whereas in preliminary sampling Manley found existing cesium-137 levels at 0.4 becquerels per kilogram — 10,000 times lower than the potassium.
Researchers opted not to study other radioactive elements such as strontium because minute quantities were released in the nuclear power plant explosion and strontium is ever-present due to the test bombings 60 years ago.