Oregon coast radiation levels remain below dangerous levels … so far

Since hearing of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant breach making its way westward, Oregon coast residents have wondered what to expect in terms of a local impact.

While the Japanese earthquake and tsunami responsible for hobbling the Fukushima plant occurred in 2011, talk of radiation has escalated in recent months, with international reports warning that dangerous levels could reach the United States West Coast within the year.

These reports directly conflict with information provided by U.S. government officials and scientists at institutions such as Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Center, which indicates that health risks to those living in Hawaii and on the West Coast are negligible, if they exist at all.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a number of West Coast scientists continue to keep a close eye on radiation levels on Pacific Ocean currents, said David J. Landkamer, aquaculture extension specialist with the Oregon Sea Grant Extension Program. Based in Newport, he serves Tillamook County as well. “To my knowledge, researchers along the West Coast have not seen any credible evidence of harmful radiation levels in any studied species, nor in any species of fish landed by U.S. vessels,” he said.

Landkamer said that also goes for “large, predatory species that migrate to the Western Pacific and would be most likely to bioaccumulate radioactivity, such as bluefin tuna.”

Which is not to say there aren’t fish species bearing signs of harmful radiation, he noted. “As might be expected, some fish species in Japanese waters in the areas near the Fukushima breach, such as the bottom-dwelling sand lance, do show elevated levels of radiation in the potentially harmful range, but these fish have not been imported (to the U.S.) since the incident.”

However, according to Landkamer, consumers should be less concerned about whether or not fish or other foods contain radiation than about how much radiation they contain. “All foods on the planet contain radiation,” he said. “Like every other toxin, it’s the the dose of radiation, rather than its simple presence, that determines whether it’s toxic to humans.”

Landkamer said, “a typical restaurant-sized portion of Pacific bluefin tuna, which is 200 grams or 7 ounces, contains about 5 percent of the radiation you would get from eating one uncontaminated banana and absorbing its naturally occuring radiation.”

Locally, levels of concern regarding radiation are mixed. For instance, Brian Williams, whose Big Wave Cafe, in Manzanita, offers dishes prepared with fresh, regional seafood, while closely monitoring the situation, is not worried yet. “We work very closely with a number of local seafood purveyors, and they all communicate that the local seafood products we are receiving are safe,” he said. “The sources we use understand the importance of a safe product and, from time to time, we have had to switch regions on various shellfish due to food safety reasons. All the reports on the salmon, halibut, Dungeness crab and tuna are good.”

Still, some people are avoiding fresh seafood for a while, just to be on the safe side. “I didn’t can tuna this year, as radiation levels were said to be reading high in West Coast catches,” said Ginger Salkowski, who owns R-Evolution Gardens, an organic farm located northeast of Nehalem. “I eat from the farm. It’s the food I trust and the soil I know is free of chemicals and full of healthy microorganisms.”

In the mean time, “marine debris arriving on our shore, including material definitely known to be (Japanese) tsunami debris, has in fact been tested with geiger counters,” wrote Philip Johnson in a Nov. 9 local email list response to concern about radiation on local shores. Johnson is executive director of CoastWatch. “There has been no sign of radiation. … There are very real concerns about the Fukushima disaster, but some¬†highly exaggerated warnings are being tossed around as well. I would urge everyone not to put 2 and 2 together and get 22.”

On the other hand, the issue of the continued operation of nuclear power plants in modern times is worthy of debate, according to Salkowski. “We are being irradiated by Fukushima every day, and there are similarly designed nuke plants in California still operating that are disasters waiting to happen,” she said. “The conversation about seafood is one that should be about renewable energy in my opinion. The conversation about what is and what is not contaminated is missing the point. We need to be addressing the cause of these problems directly. Nuclear energy is a dinosaur and poses an extreme threat to all food and life systems on the planet. We are all at risk until we can envision an energy system that doesn’t involve deadly radioactive materials being produced.”

As Tokyo Electric and Power and its contractors attempt the delicate task of removing fuel rods in an effort to decommission the Fukushima nuclear power plant, those keeping track of local radiation levels are poised to sound any needed alerts to the public, said Landkamer. “I am confident that the multiple levels of monitoring for radiation at both the federal level and by university researchers in Oregon, will detect any significant changes that might occur due to radiation in sea life along our coast, and that any changes would be immediately reported to the public.”