The Scoop: Radioactive Pacific

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A not so hazardous Pacific.
Well that’s enough to raise an eyebrow — good thing this map has nothing to do with radioactivity.

SURFING Magazine's ScoopSocial media bombards us with information. You can learn how many Heinekens your cousin twice-removed consumed on a frisky Friday eve and learn about one of the most significant events of our time during the same 30 seconds. And in either case, you’re likely to encounter a lavish exaggeration. Recently, social media has exaggerated the repercussions from 2011’s Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Radiation was the name of the game and suddenly the Pacific became cancer-inducing aggressor, a killer’s playground. Waist-high waves are now deadly and a bite of a Pacific-born fish is more harmful than 3000 Big Macs. But is any of this worry warranted?

We posed that question to three scientists. All agreed in that the levels of radioactivity in the Eastern Pacific are of no threat to your health, but Ken Buesseler was kind enough to give us the whole scoop. Not to name drop, but this guy studied on-site at Chernobyl for years. Here, the distinguished professor from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute discerns fact from foolishness. Big Ken (Ph.D., of course) explains why you needn’t worry. And if you do decide to eat sushi again, we must warn you about soy sauce — the sodium in there is out of control. —Brendan Buckley

Ken Buesseler:The meltdown at Fukushima happened in 2011 and the waves from the tsunami brought radioactive material into the ocean. There were various other sources from the event which caused even more contamination. It was an unprecedented event for the ocean, so there is every right to be worried. It’s good to have a healthy amount of concern about radioactivity in the Pacific, but the effects from Fukushima on our coast have been exaggerated. Certainly, there was an extremely high level of radioactivity right at the site of the disaster. However, the further away you go, the lower those levels become and they reach a point of insignificance.

When you put milk in your coffee cup and start stirring, you see streaks at first and eventually it all becomes that light color. The ocean behaves in a similar fashion and the mixing is very well understood. The radioactive isotopes mix with the currents. Those currents slowly move across the Pacific and they will reach our shores. But the levels will be tens of thousands of times lower that what we found in Japan. They’re already low enough off the coast of Japan to be safe, but they’re going to be even lower off our coast.

There is no way that the water that you’re surfing in could give you a radioactive dose that would be of any concern. There are already radioactive atoms in the ocean, but they aren’t dangerous. We have naturally-occurring radionuclides and there are still radionuclides from nuclear weapon testings in the ‘60s in there. It can be hard for people to understand that it’s already been there, but it has been for decades. And the radioactivity from Fukushima will cause no significant difference.

The consumption of seafood has raised significant interest. If you eat a contaminated fish, that is a direct dose of radiation and it is of more concern than external exposure. Japan had to close down a large number of fisheries for this reason. And yes, fish can move out of those contaminated zones but they rarely do — besides for tuna. And if a tuna was to swim away, the concentration of these cesium isotopes would drastically decrease. They lose it as they get into cleaner water. In 50 days, a fish will lose half of the cesium it may have picked up off Japan. We must watch out from thinking that every radioactive atom will kill us. We’re regularly exposed to a number of detrimental things and this one does not create a hazardous situation.

I don’t work for the power companies. I don’t work for any special groups. We just analyze what we measure and how it compares to other sources and try to put it into context. We don’t believe that the Pacific Ocean is safe in the sense of being able to ignore what is an unprecedented release of radioactivity. But I think it’s all been very alarmist and you can blame that on the fear of cancer or bad sci-fi movies from the past.

If you care to go in-depth, watch this video of Ken speaking at The Medical and Ecological Consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Symposium, click here.