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US residents monitor Fukushima radiation

Activists who distrust the US government taking the responsibility of radiation monitoring into their own hands.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2014 11:30
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Tokyo Electric Power Company is still struggling to contain the Fukushima nuclear disaster that was triggered by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. [Al Jazeera]

John Bertucci carries his Geiger counter wherever he goes. The counter, which is a little larger than his hand, measures radiation levels in the air around him.

"I'm still learning how to use the device but it gives me peace of mind to know that I can do something to inform and protect myself," said Bertucci, who lives in Petaluma, a small town close to California’s northern coast.

Burtucci isn't a scientist. He's a filmmaker who has lived in Petaluma since the 1950s. He says he's learning about radiation monitoring because he is not seeing the United States government or local authorities doing enough to systematically monitor air, food and ocean waters for radiation levels after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster in March 2011.

Three of the plant's nuclear reactors melted down after the plant was hit by a tsunami, which was triggered by a magnitude nine earthquake. Shortly after, the Fukushima plant started spewing radioactive materials into the air and ocean waters.

"Japan is thousands of miles from the California coast but there are indicators that the radiation is reaching California," said Bertucci.

Fukushima Response

Bertucci is a founder of Fukushima Response, a network of people residing in northern California who collect and disseminate information about the radiation threats of the Fukushima Diiachi nuclear plant disaster.

The group of six people started meeting in May 2012 in a Petaluma coffee shop and have grown into a network of 35 activists with supporters from all around the United States.

In their monthly meetings, group members share recent news about the Japanese government's activities at the Fukushima plant, research reports from scientists, and ways for communities to monitor radiation levels for themselves. In October 2013 the group organized a human mural spelling out the words "Fukushima is Here" on San Francisco's Ocean Beach.

"I know that the people in Japan are facing the worst of the conditions but I also worry about my children here in California. Will there be high levels of radiation in the air and will my children be able to swim in the Pacific Ocean in the coming years?" said Maggy Hohle, who attended a Fukushima Response meeting in November and is a mother of three boys.

Bertucci, Hohle, and others at Fukushima Response say that they are not convinced that the Environmental Protection Agency, a US governmental agency responsible for protecting human health and the environment, is doing enough to monitor radiation levels. Additionally no US government agency monitors radiation levels in ocean water.

The EPA monitors radiation levels in air, drinking water, precipitation, and pasteurized milk and reports the data to the public.

The agency's air monitoring system, called RadNet, consists of 132 stationary monitors spread throughout the US. The monitoring stations continuously read radiation levels and a computer reviews the data and reports abnormal radiation readings to EPA laboratory staff.

However, radiation monitoring experts and activists says that the RadNet system is inadequate and can't protect the public in case of a major nuclear disaster, especially if something goes wrong at one of the 104 US nuclear power reactors or there are additional explosions at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

"The government knows that we need more air monitors because after the 3-mile nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979, many experts and reports recommended something like 250 monitoring stations for every power plant," said Dan Sythe, a radiation monitoring expert based in Sebastopol and owner of International Medcom, a company which makes handheld radiation detection devices like the Geiger counter that Bertucci owns.

RadNet not enough

Most states have one or two stationary air monitors. Texas and California have 11 monitors each, the most of any states.

"Sometimes the RadNet monitoring stations are down and other times they just don’t give out the data," said Bertucci.

An April 2012 audit by the EPA Office of the Inspector General echoed some of these concerns and reported that 25 out of 124 or 20 percent of the EPA's air monitoring stations were not working right after the Fukushima disaster. Additional monitors hadn’t been serviced or had their air filters replaced in more than eight weeks.

The report stated that "if RadNet is not managed as a high-priority program, EPA may not have the needed data before, during, and after a critical event such as the Japan nuclear incident. Such data are crucial to determine levels of airborne radioactivity that may negatively affect public health and the environment."

Since the audit the EPA has added eight more monitors and says most of the monitors are working. However the monitors continue to be operated by volunteers and not paid EPA employees.

When data is collected and reported on RadNet, Sythe says the data is difficult for the average person to understand and use to make decisions in their daily lives.

"This system is funded by tax payer money and people should be able to understand and use the data in a timely manner," said Sythe who has visited Japan nine times including once to the city of Fukushima since the nuclear plant disaster.

Sythe and members Fukushima response say people need quick and reliable testing methods to be able to react to increased radiation levels

"Because of the mistrust that people have of the EPA, they are shifting to personal radiation testing devices," Sythe said.

Many Geiger counters start at about $300 and can detect gamma rays, alpha, beta, and x-ray radiation. This kind of personal and community monitoring is taking place in Japan mostly through a radiation monitoring network called Safecast.

With partners such as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Keio University, a private university in Tokyo, Safecast maintains a radiation sensor network comprised of stationary and mobile sensors operating around Japan, both near the Fukushima plant and elsewhere in the country.

According to Safecast’s website, by December 2013 the non-profit group had collected over 14 million radiation data points and publishes then on it's website for free.

"We don't have anything near Japan's high levels here in California but we also don’t have a reliable monitoring system to inform the public quickly about radiation exposure," said Sythe, who has worked as an adviser to Safecast.

When asked about Fukushima fallout, a term used to describe the radioactive particles that are produced by a nuclear explosion and then fall through the atmosphere, some scientists are quick to say that there aren't any signs of it on the West Coast of the United States.

"There is no evidence of Fukushima fallout here in California and local fish are safe to eat but I won't be surprised to see small amounts of Fukushima fallout in the Pacific in the future," said Eric Norman, a nuclear engineering professor at University of California Berkeley.

"Continuous testing is needed"

Days after the Fukushima incident in March 2011 Norman tested rainwater and local milk samples in Berkeley and found low levels of radiation linked to the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Since then he's done sporadic testing of rainwater and local yogurt samples but says he hasn’t found any radiation in those.

"There is no systematic testing in the US of air, food, and water for radiation, continuous testing is needed," said Norman.

Norman says he is especially concerned since the Japanese government admitted in late July that more radioactive water has been coursing into the Pacific Ocean then they first had reported and in late November the Japanese government started removing more than 1500 fuel rods from reactor number four. Experts say another earthquake or a mistake in the handling of one fuel rod could trigger another radioactive disaster.

Scientists are looking at various unusual occurrences of marine animals recently dying along the Pacific coast and research that shows low-level radioactivity in California fish.

Since July, researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz have been seeing starfish along the northern California coastline with a disease that makes their arms fall off and they eventually die. It’s being called the sea star "wasting" disease because the small scaly fish slowly waste away.

"It is unlikely that it could be from Fukushima but we are not ruling it out," said Pete Raimondi, Chair of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at UC Santa Cruz.

Raimondi is investigating the sea star disease and says debris from the Fukushima disaster that has floated over to the California coast could have toxins or radioactive particles that may have affected the starfish.

In 2011, marine scientists from Stony Brook University and Stanford University tested 15 Pacific bluefin tunas caught off of the coast of southern California and found small amounts of radioactive elements from the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

According to the research the migratory bluefin tuna were 1-2 years old and swam in radioactive waters between Japan and California.

Additionally, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)), a US governmental agency, from January to May 2013 more than 1400 starving sea lions washed up on the beaches of southern California because there wasn’t enough fish in the ocean for them to feed on. This is a 75 per cent increase over the annual average of sea lions washing up on shore. The NOAA is calling it an "unusual mortality event" and don't know why it is happening.

Also, unprecedented numbers of whales, dolphins, anchovies, and other marine animals have been seen closer to shore than ever before.

No government testing

Despite all of these indicators leading marine chemist Ken Buesseler says no US government agency currently tests radiation levels in the Pacific Ocean.

"I don't expect the radiation levels to be high but we can't dismiss the concerns that the public has," said Buesseler, who works for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a non profit research organization based in Massachusetts and focused on studying the ocean.

Buesseler, along with a team from WHOI, made the first of his three visits to the Fukushima area in June 2011. They suspected groundwater flowing through the reactor site was carrying radiation into the sea.

Buesseler says weeks after the March 2011 Fukushima Plant disaster occurred a large plume of radioactive air swept across the Pacific Ocean and over California.

According to Buesseler a second plume is headed towards California, this one is in the water and has taken almost three years to make it across the Pacific Ocean.

"The effects of Fukushima will be increasing as the front edge of a large water plume coming from the nuclear plant will reach California soon and increase over the years," said Buesseler.

Buesseler recently took his concerns to Washington where he met with US government officials at the various agencies responsible for monitoring radiation levels in air, food, and water.

He said he visited officials at the Department of Energy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

"They all said that it's not their responsibility to test the Pacific Ocean for radiation. This issue is falling between the cracks of government responsibility. It’s a health and safety issue here," Buesseler said.

Bertucci and Sythe say that with no US government testing ocean waters there isn't any large scale studies to peak the interests of local or national government officials.

"There isn't data to suggest that people should be alarmed about the radiation levels of the waters along California's coast. There is no evidence of environmental impact or affects on public health," said US Congressman Jared Huffman, who represents a large part of California's northern coast.

However some members of Fukushima Response say that a lack of data doesn't mean that the issue doesn't exist.

"The nuclear energy lobby groups are strong and there is a lid on the kind of peer reviewed scientific data that is going to give us the quantifiable effects [of the Fukushima radiation]," said Bertucci.

Huffman says he doesn't see any signs of a cover up by the nuclear energy industry or the US government but says that "the US government should be doing more testing in order to convince the public that the ocean and fish are safe."

Buesseler's concern about radiation levels in the ocean and the absence of a government monitoring program led him to start his own testing and monitoring service.

Buesseler says he is in the process of setting up a website that will allow people to mail samples of water collected off their beaches and docks to the WHOI for a tax-free donation. The results will be posted on the Internet for the public to access.

"I'm not terribly confident in the information Japan is sharing about the plant’s activities and clean up. That's why it's even more important now to advocate for continuous testing of air, food, and ocean water for radiation," said Norman.

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Al Jazeera
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