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Americans Test Seawater for Fukushima Radiation

A Washington state ferry emerges from a fog bank on Puget Sound near Bainbridge Island in this 2013 file photo.

A Washington state ferry emerges from a fog bank on Puget Sound near Bainbridge Island in this 2013 file photo.

It has been more than three years since the nuclear accident at the Fukushima power station in Japan. Millions of liters of radioactive cooling water from the power center poured into the Pacific Ocean. Experts predicted some of that water would reach the West Coast of North America this year. But they said it would not be very radioactive, so Americans should not be worried.

But some people living on the West Coast have decided to pay for tests of the seawater anyway.

Wayne Kinslow likes to swim near his home in Seattle, Washington.

"I just love the water. So I go out. It's great exercise."

Wayne Kinslow swims about 20 minutes a day in the cold waters of Puget Sound. So he willingly paid more than $500 for an independent water test. The test did not find evidence of radiation from the nuclear plant.

"This is something that was really important to me because I'm out there every day and I don't really want to die. So, it's best to test, to test the water and this is my chance. So I, as soon as we got an opportunity, I just threw all the money at it for the first sample."

Mr. Kinslow is not the only person who is concerned that there might be radiation in the water. Terry Waldron is a high school art teacher. She is collecting money to test the waters near her family's property in Newport, Oregon.

"You know, for a while, I thought about not eating fish, for a while. And I thought, I can't do that. You know, but I was so concerned at a point because I couldn't find any information. So I, I do eat fish, I do. But I, I still want that test done."

Terry Waldron and Wayne Kinslow have joined a project called "Our Radioactive Ocean." It is collecting donations to pay for testing at about 30 places from California north to Alaska. The program operates under the supervision of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

Ms. Waldron and Mr. Kinslow say they are having a hard time persuading people to give money to the project. One possible reason for this is that scientists and government agencies have been saying for some time that people should not worry about the radiation.

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Photo taken on August 31, 2013. (Reuters/Kyodo)

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Photo taken on August 31, 2013. (Reuters/Kyodo)

Scientists are able to discover where radiation comes from by looking at what is called a nuclear "fingerprint." The fingerprint from the Fukushima nuclear power center is a combination of two isotopes of the element cesium.

Kathy Higley is a professor of Radiation Health Physics at Oregon State University. She believes people should not be worried about radiation levels in the ocean.

"With the samples that we've taken that are along the, the West Coast, we don't see anything of concern. We don't expect to see anything. It has diluted. It has decayed. It has dispersed. My husband and I take our kids to the coast all the time. We are not at all concerned about it. We eat seafood. We're not concerned about it."

Professor Higley says Oregon State graduate students are looking for radiation from the Fukushima accident. They are studying the movement of seawater and fish by examining isotopes released in the accident.

This summer, one of her students collected seawater and fish from the coasts of Washington state and Oregon. Delvan Neville is now looking at them.

The fish and water samples go into a detector designed to measure even low levels of radiation. The detector is covered in lead bricks. The samples stay in the machine for several days.

"Yeah, it takes a long time to count it -- one, because there's so little activity present. Even in the worst case model, there may be just a few Becquerels (a measure of radioactivity) at most of cesium 137 on the detector."

Mr. Neville says people should not be worried about low radiation levels. He says we are surrounded by natural radiation.

"Several seconds worth in a stuffy basement was a larger dose than consuming a year's worth of albacore. But people are not aware of all the things around them that are radioactive. They don't consider themselves radioactive."

State public health agencies are also testing seawater. Results from Oregon show normal levels. Officials in Washington have yet to release results. But some people are still worried that radiation levels may be higher because of the Fukushima accident.

Ken Buesseler is a chemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. He says many people have called him asking if he had started a citizen science testing program. He has. It is the "Our Radioactive Ocean" project. That is the project the swimmer and the art teacher we heard from earlier in this report gave money to.

"Given this concern and the numerous requests for information, I just decided if we could put up and do this with crowd-funding, we could do this quickly and get people the information they want and basically let them select their beach -- their favorite site -- for analyses."

Another project uses seaweed plants as a radiation detector. Kelp Watch has expanded from its beginning at several California universities. It now examines cesium levels off the coast of Washington and near Vancouver Island in Canada. Brown seaweeds are known to keep cesium, strontium and iodine in their tissues. But Kelp Watch says all of the kelp it has examined so far showed no signs of radiation from Fukushima.


This report was narrated and written by Christopher Cruise from a report by Tom Banse in Seattle.

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