It’s been almost 3 years since the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. Hundreds of millions of gallons of radioactive water were released from the Fukushima nuclear plant. Fish there have been contaminated and some Japanese fisheries are still closed due to ongoing leaks. That’s made many people nervous about eating fish caught on this side of the Pacific Ocean.
It’s a gray Sunday morning at the Ballard farmer’s market in Seattle.
[Market sound “Hey Charlie. You got your seahawks gear on.”]
Pete Knutson’s standing next to rows of neatly-packaged pink salmon meat, most of which he caught himself. He’s been fishing for more than 40 years. His company, the Loki fish company, has a stand here every weekend.
Pete Knutson: “We have all different kinds of salmon products, pickled salmon, ikura, smoked salmon, canned salmon, whole pink salmon over there.”
People walk by carrying yoga mats and reusable grocery bags filled with leafy greens. An accordion player picks up nearby.
Knutson’s in the business of catching fish, not testing them. But after the Fukushima melt down his customers wanted answers about the safety of his product.
So he sent 7 salmon samples off to an internationally certified lab to test for radioactive isotopes.
Pete Knutson: “What did we find? We found that these fish were clean and there were two samples that maybe had a trace of barely detectable so we feel very good about the results.”
Two of the samples tested positive for Cesium, a radioactive isotope that was released in the Fukushima meltdown. But the levels in the fish were hundreds of times below federal standards.
Knutson’s data is, of course, just a limited sample but his results are in line with other independent scientists who have been testing fish since Fukushima.
Delvan Neville is a PhD candidate in Radiation Health Physics at Oregon State University.
He’s analyzed dozens of samples of albacore tuna since the meltdown.
He’s found Cesium levels that are so low he’s felt comfortable eating some of his samples.
Delvan Neville: “Which was actually kind of fun because then I was telling people as we were eating at the table what their approximate dose was due to Fukushima from the food they were eating and it’s this ridiculously small number.”
Neville has collected more than 60 fish samples since the Fukushima melt down. The concentrations of Cesium from Fukushima were so low that his testing device couldn’t pick up any radioactive material until he concentrated the samples.
Delvan Neville: “So the highest I’ve seen is more than 1,000 times lower than the point where the FDA would even think about whether they need to let people eat that food still.”
Kim Martini: “To actually get a harmful dose of tuna you have to eat 2.5 tons of tuna a year, and I really love Tuna, but I don’t love it that much.”
Kim Martini is a physical oceanographer at the University of Washington who has been following the Fukushima issue closely.
The radioactive material is currently moving in a plume near the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But models project that the majority of the radioactive water will sink or be pushed west again before it hits the U.S. Scientists are still debating how high those radioactivity levels could be.
But Martini says here on the west coast of the U.S. and Canada, scientists have found very low levels of Cesium from Fukushima.
Kim Martini: “It’s about 20,000 times less than drinking water standards. And so what we like to say is it’s detectable but harmless.”
Nevertheless, websites have sprung up blaming Fukushima for everything from lower sockeye salmon runs to conjoined twin baby whales in Baja.
Kim Martini: “One video that’s going around is a guy with a Geiger counter going down to the beach and it starts beeping…”
[Video Sound, beeps: "Here I am, I’m over background. The alarm’s going off.
The video was shot at a beach in Northern California and was posted by a guy named Dave. It now has more than 700,000 views on youtube. It prompted state officials to test samples from the beach. They found that the radioactivity was naturally occurring.
Kim Martini: “This is one of the problems. People are going out with Geiger counters and saying this is Fukushima radiation. It can measure radiation but it can’t differentiate between different kinds of radiation.”
You’ll find naturally occurring radioactive isotopes in rock, sand - even in bananas.
Martini and other scientists have received hate mail, even death threats, for trying to dispel some of the online fears about radioactive pollution from Fukushima.
Kim Martini: “And there’s definitely people that you’re never going to convince and I’ve talked with a lot of these people. We do our best. If you’re really really convinced, I don’t know what to tell you. The science says it’s ok.”
Radioactive groundwater is still leaking out of the Fukushima nuclear reactor site though it’s a fraction of the initial release from the meltdown.
More radioactive material could eventually reach the U.S., but scientists say the levels showing up in fish and water on the west coast aren’t grounds for concern.