Members of Japan's Ground Self Defense Force decontaminate at the city office of Tomioka Machi, 5 1/2 miles from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture, Japan, on December 8, 2011. The earthquake occurred on March 11, 2011. For the first time, radiation reached North America earlier this year. File photo by Keizo Mori/UPI | License Photo
WOOD HOLE, Mass., Dec. 12 (UPI) -- For the first time since the nuclear disaster in 2011, radiation from Japan's Fukushima plant has reached the West Coast of the United States, according to a New England researcher.
It's a minuscule amount -- less than one-thousandth the standard for drinking water or a dental X-ray. But it's notable considering the amount was detected 5,000 miles from Japan five years after the disaster.
From his lab another 3,000 miles east in Massachusetts, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution chemical oceanographer Ken Buesseler discovered samples of seawater taken in January and February from Tillamook Bay and Gold Beach in central Oregon contain radiation unique to the power plants. It wasn't until last week that it was reported by a media outlet, the Statesman Journal, which serves the Oregon area where the samples were found.
"Not to downplay it, but the levels we are seeing are quite low," Buesseler told UPI.
He said it wouldn't stop him from eating seafood or swimming in the Pacific Ocean.
Massive amounts of contaminated water were released from the March 2011 meltdown
of three power plants after the 9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Radiation was released to the air that fell into the sea.
U.S. federal agencies don't monitor the radiation levels in seawater.
So, Buesseler launched a crowd-funded, citizen-science seawater sampling project.
He tracks radiation across the Pacific Ocean sent to him by West Coast volunteers and scientists aboard research cruises. Then he analyzes samples.
Personally, Buessler has made seven trips to Japan to study radiation levels.
The Oregon samples were the first time cesium-134 -- which is a "fingerprint" to the Japanese plant -- was detected on U.S. shores.
Buesseler's most recent samples off the West Coast also show higher levels of cesium-137, another Fukushima isotope than previously was present in the world's oceans because of nuclear testing in the 1950s and 1960s.
"You can't ever have a radioactive-free ocean," he said. "You have nuclear disasters like this one, testing and naturally occurring radioactivity."
Cesium-134 was also been detected for the first in a Canadian salmon as part of the Fukushima InFORM project, led by University of Victoria chemical oceanographer Jay Cullen. Buesseler's group recently teamed up with InFORM.
Buesseler's team in February 2015 found Cesium-134 in a sample of seawater from a dock on Vancouver Island, B.C., marking the first landfall in North America from the disaster,
"Even if the levels were twice as high, you could still swim in the ocean for six hours every day for a year and receive a dose more than a thousand times less than a single dental X-ray," Buesseler told the Statesman Journal at the time. "While that's not zero, that's a very low risk."
Buesseler is not really interested in the levels, but in seeing how they vary in terms of distance and time from where the radiation was dispersed.
"As a scientist, I want to see how quickly ocean current mixes," he said. "Models are not my specialty."
The ocean patterns could help determine where the radiation is headed if there is another disaster.
Earlier this year, Japan and Russia announced they would team up to study the effects of radiation on the DNA of future generations.
The Japanese government is still dealing with the environmental and economic consequences of the disaster. Koyodo News reported last month the cost of terminating the nuclear power station nearly doubled from the country's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to about $178.14 billion. Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc.'s compensation payments are to increase from $48.1 billion to $71.3 billion. Decontamination costs will double to $44.5 billion, according to the report.