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California wines contain Fukushima radiation, and it’s not a bad thing via PBS

In an underground lab covered by nine feet of concrete and compacted dirt, two nuclear physicists hunt for fraudulent wine. Their method is unusual — they measure radiation coming from the wine itself, without ever opening the bottle.

Now in a new preprint study, Michael Pravikoff and Philippe Hubert at National Center for Scientific Research and University of Bordeaux in France show the radiation from the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant made its way into California wine.

Radiation detection has been used for decades as a way to verify the age, or vintage, of a wine. Wines from 1952 to the 1970s, for example, have much higher radiation levels due to above ground nuclear testing.

As for Fukushima, other studies have found increased levels of radiation in the ocean and marine life off the Pacific coast of North America after the incident.


Because radiation levels went up and down as nuclear tests were done in the 1950s and 1960s, they can’t tell the exact year. But, if the wine is labeled pre-1950, like many extremely expensive wines dating back to the 1700s, absolutely no radiation should be detected. In a 2009 study by Pravikoff and Hubert, more than half of the wines tested were determined to be fake when measurable amounts of cesium-137 were found in the wine.


In Cabernet Sauvignon from two different vineyards, the physicists found the radiation levels doubled in 2011 and remained higher than usual in 2012 through 2015. In a rosé from the same vineyard, there wasn’t much of a variation over the same period of time.

The radiation levels in the red wines are barely above “background” — or the low amount of radiation seen in French wines since the 1990s, after radiation from Chernobyl became undetectable in European wines.


Why it matters:

The amount of radiation present in all the wine tested by their lab is too small to harm a person’s health. Pravikoff and his team estimate that you’d need to drink more than 40,000 bottles in a year of the most radioactive vintage to get sick. That’s 110 bottles every day.


After Fukushima, Fisher studied the cesium-137 taken up by Pacific bluefin tuna, which migrate from the coast of Japan to California. Similar to wine, the radiation found in bluefin tuna was lower than background radiation that occurs naturally, Fisher said.

“Radioactivity is part of our environment. It’s very weak, but it could be useful for some purposes,” Pravikoff said.

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