We’ve heard a lot about potential radiation danger from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear reactor, mostly from two sources: scientists whose job it is to measure these things, and social media that is flooded with dire, unsubstantiated warnings of doom.
There is a concern in Alaska – but it’s not about being irradiated. It’s the danger of public perception, of people thinking Alaska seafood could be tainted. Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Larry Hartig told the Senate Resources Committee last week that seafood competitors “would love to discourage Alaska fish,” by spreading doubts about the safety of Alaska seafood.
All of those concerns also attracted the attention of Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins of Sitka, who did some research of his own.
“I live in Sitka, an island surrounded by ocean and I eat a lot of fish. If there’s radiation in the ocean, that’s concerning to me personally. I had been seeing a steady trickle of conspiracy theories on Fukushima, and the take-away from Fukushima is if you look at the hard data in the ocean, there’s no cause for concern.”
Kreiss-Tompkins spoke with researchers with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and attended a Congressional hearing in Washington D.C. last year on the topic. He said that not only is there no cause for concern about radiation poisoning here, it’s only a bit more concerning in Japan.
“There’s sort of a gradient of the degree of radiation in the ocean. It’s more elevated around Japan, and it’s practically non-existent off the coast of North American and Alaska,” he said. “But even off the coast of the FDN plant in Japan, the radiation is actually well below the EPA drinking water regulations. If that were fresh water, it would actually pass EPA muster as potable water.”
Marti Brewer, with the DEC’s Division of Environmental Health, says every agency that has taken a look at radiation levels, has come to the same conclusion.
“The available information that Alaska has access to, from other agencies – federal agencies such as EPA, FDA, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as well as other pacific states such as Hawaii, Oregon, California and Washington, as well as Health Canada, have demonstrated that there are no levels of radiation that are of a public health concern.”
She said that what little Fukushima radiation has been detected in the wild is miniscule.
“There’s naturally occurring radiation, and there has been some detections of cesium that is reportedly from Fukushima, but at very miniscule levels,” Brewer said. “What’s being detected is orders of magnitude below public health levels.”
A presentation Brewer and a colleague have made illustrates just how little radiation there is from Fukushima. At between 3 and 30 peta-Becquerels, atmospheric and oceanic contamination from the reactor disaster is less than a third that released by Chernobyl, and over 100 times less than all the nuclear weapons tests between the 1940s and 1970s. All of that is dwarfed by the natural uranium-238 and potassium-40 present in the oceans, which range from 37,000 and 15-million peta-Becquerels.
And if Alaska were to have a radiation problem, it would have already been noticeable from the largest hydrogen bomb tests in American history, which took place on Amchitka*, or from uranium mining in Southeast:
“Alaska had one of the largest uranium mines in the world, along the Panhandle. And you may have heard of the Bokan Mountain region, being explored for rare earth minerals, well, coincidentally rare earth minerals coincide with naturally occurring radioactivity,” she said. “So the area that they’re promoting for rare earth mineral development is highly radioactive. Naturally occurring radioactivity, and a lot of Alaskans don’t know that.”
Furthermore, debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami was washed out to sea days before any radiation escaped from the Fukushima nuclear plant, and none has been found to be radioactive.
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified where the nuclear bomb tests were conducted in Alaska. It was Amchitka.