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Citizen scientists prepare to test West Coast for Fukushima radiation (with video) via The Vancouver Sun

Sometime in the next few weeks highly diluted, low-level radiation from the Japanese nuclear disaster is expected to reach West Coast shores

All along the Pacific coast of North America and as far south as Costa Rica, people with little or no scientific background have volunteered to raise money for the program and collect the sea water samples needed to test for radiation.

The crowdsourcing, citizen-scientist program is the idea of Ken Buesseler, a research scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the world’s biggest private-non-profit oceanographic agency. Buesseler began his career studying the spread of radioactivity from Chernobyl in the Black Sea and has been working with Japanese scientists since mid-2011 to understand the spread of radiation from Fukushima across the Pacific Ocean.

Buesseler said in a phone interview from Japan that he was motivated by public concern over radiation from Fukushima and his frustration at the reluctance of the U.S. government to fund a program to measure radiation that is expected to arrive on the West Coast this spring.

He said because the radiation levels are expected to be low, federal U.S. officials didn’t consider it a priority. As well, radiation in the oceans fell into the bureaucratic cracks: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s responsbility extends to oceans but not radiation; the Department of Energy is responsible for monitoring radiation but not in the ocean.


“You can be anti-nuclear and you don’t have to scare people about Fukushima,” he said. “There have been some really awful scaremongering — showing lesions in fish and things that have never been shown to be due to Fukushima. A lot of false and misleading claims, I think, are out there.”

Buesseler said neither he nor Woods Hole has involved non-scientists in a project like this before. Already two months into it, he thinks it’s a good way to engage and educate the public. It doesn’t replace basic research, he said, but it does add to it.


Reports indicate low-level radiation from Fukushima is getting closer to the West Coast. Tests conducted by John Smith from the Canadian government’s Bedford Institute of Oceanography found that as of June, 2013, a tiny amount — 0.9 becquerels — of cesium-134 was measured in a location in the Pacific about 2,000 km west of Vancouver. (A becquerel, or Bq, measures the rate at which radioactive material emits radiation and decays; one Bq = one atom disintegrating per second.)

Four samples taken in January in California and Washington as part of the citizen science initiative showed no detectable Fukushima cesium.The testing at Woods Hole can measure as little as 0.1 or 0.2 becquerels of cesium-134 and cesium-137 in a cubic metre of sea water. In the U.S., the drinking water standard is 7,400 becquerels of cesium per cubic metre; in Canada, the standard is 10,000.

Buesseler said the predicted increase in levels of cesium is anywhere from one extra becquerel to 20 or 30. While he agreed that’s a big range, the upper limit is still far below the accepted levels for drinking water.

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