Fukushima Nuclear Disaster: 3 years later, local scientists check kelp for contamination

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It’s been three years since a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck the northeastern shoreline of Japan’s Honshu Island, sweeping away entire towns and claiming more than 15,000 lives.

In its destruction, the tsunami also damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, sparking the meltdown of three of the facility’s six nuclear reactors. Soon afterwards the plant began releasing radioactive material into the surrounding ocean, resulting in the largest dump of nuclear waste since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Now scientists say that radioactive seawater is about to make it to Southern California.

Researchers at CSU Long Beach, lead by Professor Steven Manley, have embarked on an ambitious project — dubbed Kelp Watch 2014 — to find out just how much radioactive material we have in our local seawater. By examining levels of radioactive isotopes in local kelp populations, Manley and his team hope to dispel notions that the radiation poses a significant health risk to humans.

“The anticipated amounts [of radioactive material], because of the dilution that has occurred, are not considered to be human health risks,” Manley said, while harvesting kelp just outside the Long Beach Harbor last Thursday. “But I think it’s important to know actually what is in our environment.”

While it’s important to not conflate the tragic events of Fukushima with possible seawater contamination off the coast of California, Manley notes that the migration of radioactive material from the coast of Japan to Southern California is significant. He added that he doesn’t anticipate finding any radioactive material from Fukushima in this initial round of testing, but that future tests in July and later this winter should show signs of Fukushima contamination.

To hear more about Kelp Watch 2014, listen below:

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The kelp collection team — which included Professor Steven Manley and two marine biology graduate students — embarked on their first kelp harvest last Thursday. The harvest is one of 40 being conducted along the Pacific coastline. Pictured, Alamitos Bay in Long Beach, CA.
While the research team doesn’t expect to find radioactive isotopes from the Fukushima disaster in local kelp populations initially, they do expect trace levels to appear later this year. Pictured here, the CSU Long Beach Marine Biology boat, which carried the crew (and local media) out to the kelp beds just outside the breakwater of Long Beach.
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In this picture, Professor Steven Manley examines a piece of kelp harvested during Kelp Watch 2014. Manley noted that his team chose to look at local kelp because of its accessibility and its ability to absorb particles in seawater.
Pictured, a diver hands a freshly cut piece of kelp to Professor Steven Manley aboard the CSU Long Beach Marine Biology boat. In total, Manley’s team will collect 14 pounds of kelp, dry it over a period of two days and then chop it up in a blender so that it can be analyzed.