How long does it take for radiation and chemicals to cross the Pacific Ocean? That's the question behind a new crowdsourcing program to track the arrival of trace amounts of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster to the West Coast of the United States and Canada. The disaster occurred three years ago this month, and scientists now expect trace amounts of radiation from the failed power nuclear power plant to start to arrive on the West Coast via the Pacific.
The crowdsourcing program has been organized by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and its Center for Marine and Environmental Radiation. As explained on the "How Radioactive is Our Ocean?" website, the radiation from Fukushima poses little risk to human health, but it can be a learning tool to help anticipate future disasters. It also fills an important gap, since the governments of the U.S. and Canada are not currently doing any testing.
"What we don't really know is how fast and how much is being transported across the Pacific," WHOI senior scientist Ken Buesseler says in a video about the project. "Yes, the models tell us it will be safe. Yes, the levels we expect off the coast of the U.S. and Canada are expected to be low. But we need measurements, especially now as the plume begins to arrive along the West Coast." Models say the radiation is forecasted to be detectable on the Pacific coastline as early as next month, according to a January news release from WHOI about the project.
Volunteers working with the crowdsourcing project are being asked to raise money to test waters at 30 sites from Alaska to California. The volunteers will then collect samples, which they will send to WHOI for testing. Buesseler told the Associated Press that he hopes enough money will be raised to allow water sampling every two to three months for two to three years. Each sample costs about $600 for the equipment and testing.
Kathryn A. Higley, head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at Oregon State University, told the AP that radioactive isotopes linked to Fukushima have been detected out at sea but have not yet hit the coastline.
According to models, any radiation from Fukushima will first arrive in Alaska and coastal Canada as it travels through the Kuroshio Current. It will then circulate down the coast before heading back out into the Pacific toward Hawaii.
Buesseler told CBC News that the testing also helps to allay public concern. "There's a great alarm, when you don't know. People can speculate all kinds of things," he said.
WHOI has already analyzed the first samples sent in by citizen scientists. Those samples show isotopes from natural radiation and from decades-old nuclear tests, but none yet from Fukushima. All results will be published online as the tests are completed.
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