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Q&A: Could a Radioactive Plume Impact the U.S.?

Henrieta Dulaiova on a cruise to collect samples for her studies on the geochemistry of the oceanIn 2014, a plume of ocean-borne radiation, originating from the Fukushima meltdown, will hit the west coast of the U.S. Initial sources warned that this could be an extremely dangerous concentration of radionuclides, but recent research and new sources have since said there is nothing to fear.

One of the researchers trying to set the record straight is Henrieta Dulaiova, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii’s department of geology and geophysics. Dulaiova holds a Ph.D. in Chemical Oceanography and a Master of Sciences in Nuclear Chemistry and has been studying the ocean-borne radiation from Fukushima since the disaster began in 2011.

We spoke with Dulaiova over the phone about her research, being accused of working for the government, how much Americans should worry, and background radiation levels.

We asked a person on the bus what he would want to know about a plume of ocean-borne radiation hitting the West Coast. He said, “How long do I have to live?” Can you answer that question?

Honestly [laughs], there aren’t negative health effects that he can expect. The radiation will not get on the land. The questions I get most often in Hawaii are whether swimming or surfing in the ocean will be safe, which they are. He should be fine, which is why we wanted to dispute the initial claims that said otherwise.

So since your report, has there been any fallout for you?

No [laughs] however, I am accused of working for the government and wanting to hide data and whatnot but I don’t work for the government. I’m producing results for scientific study while trying to understand how cesium from Fukushima disperses in the ocean. I also would prefer it if people knew what was really going on in the Pacific.

So that is why you felt you needed to talk to news sources?

Yes. There was a paper published in the journal Science China Earth Sciences, which predicted that oceanic radioactivity would increase in the plume as it made its way across the Pacific.

This is what the news picked it up. All that “hey, radiation is getting even larger and more concentrated in the plume because of currents,” came from those reports.

We wanted to say that this is physically impossible and not what we have seen in the field and our samples. When you have dissolved elements or solutes in water, you cannot simply make the concentration higher.

But what will the concentration actually be?

So let me tell you a little bit more about the background radiation in the ocean, meaning the naturally existing radiation. Right now, the ocean has about 10,000 Becquerels of radiation (the SI unit for radiation) per meter cubed. This radiation is non-anthropogenic, meaning it is completely from natural sources.

Based on the amount of Cesium-137 that we have detected in our water samples from the last two years of research and from estimates of what was roughly discharged from Fukushima between March 2011 and June 2011, the ocean's radioactivity will only increase a few Becquerels because of the original Fukushima plume. This is only a tiny increase that should pose little to no real threat to the U.S.

Once the radiation plume hits, what can we expect to happen in the West Coast?

After it hits the West Coast, it will turn back around and continue to dilute into the ocean.

The concern now is the strength of new releases. But I cannot comment on that. I don’t know how large those will be.

In the same vein, what has been the effect of the radiation on fish that migrate through the area of radiation?

So fish are definitely another big concern. There was a study done on a bluefin tuna caught off the West Coast that had migrated from Japan. It had Fukushima derived cesium in it, so the researcher decided to publish a study that calculated the doses of cesium the population would receive if they ate only that specific tuna year round.

They found out that actually, the highest dose to people would be from Potassium-40 and Polonium-210 which constitute natural background radiation while the dose from the Fukushima cesium would be several orders of magnitude smaller.

Is there a cumulative effect or a larger effect on specific types of sea life?

Right, so another concern is that fish and other organisms can accumulate cesium, so fish will pick it up, algae will pick it up, and the levels will increase as it moves up the food chain. There are ongoing studies to try to understand what the accumulation rate is and how it affects the fish by living in this water. However, I don’t have the answers to that. I do not know how high the levels in fish will get.

So to be safe, people should always be sure to watch what they eat.

On the other hand, what have been the long-term impacts of the oceanic radiation on the coast of Japan and the other Asian nations?

Despite all that is happening, the Japanese did a great job putting together the reactors at Fukushima. They had all of these safety measures and it might have been much worse.

But regardless of all of that, they see radioactivity in everything. It is in sediment, algae, mussels, and in the water itself, and it is ongoing, meaning that there are continued releases that scientists have detected.

Although Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) doesn’t make any announcements like, “Hey we accidentally leaked this much or this much.”

But because of these increasing levels of radiation, the scientists know there are more leaks.

Unfortunately, that is the big issue.

So Americans really overreacted then?

Compared to the disaster level in Japan, the fact that we freaked out about the plume coming to the West Coast is not justified. Of course, we have to look out for ourselves, but there are much bigger problems to deal with at the moment.

We need to be aware problems elsewhere, not just ours.

How can Americans help?

Americans should donate whatever the Japanese government allows for international help from charities.

We should also learn to scrutinize articles like the ones that initially came out. They did not understand the situation and that was why I wanted my message out there.

In your opinion, what sources should people consult when something like this happens?

Oceanus is a beautiful publication put together by scientists to explain how radiation behaves in the ocean. And it is built for laymen. That is one of the sources that I trust and like, although it doesn’t answer all of the hard questions.

What should be our concerns about Fukushima in the future and what are your plans?

It will all depend on future contamination and the how the reactors are contained. But I cannot comment on that -- I don’t know how large those leaks could be. Regardless, I will be continuing my research.

If there are new releases, we will just have to do measurements and see what they tell us.

This issue is keeping us on our toes. We will not be done with this problem anytime soon.

--Photo courtesy of Henrieta Dulaiova

James RogersJames Rogers is an editorial intern at Sierra. He graduated from Western Washington University's Huxley College of the Environment, where he studied a combination of environmental studies and journalism. While at Western, he was the editor in chief of The Planetmagazine, and he has written for Conservation Northwest QuarterlyPublic Eye Northwestand The Western Front.

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