Radiation from Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster has for the first time been detected along a North American shoreline — though at levels too low to pose a significant threat to human or marine life, scientists said Monday.
Trace amounts of cesium-134 and cesium-137 were detected in samples collected on Feb. 19 off Ucluelet, a small town on Vancouver Island, on Canada’s Pacific coast, said Ken Buesseler, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The cesium-134 isotope is uniquely linked to the Fukushima disaster.
"Radioactivity can be dangerous, and we should be carefully monitoring the oceans after what is certainly the largest accidental release of radioactive contaminants to the oceans in history," Buesseler said in a statement.
The levels the group detected are extremely low. For example, swimming in the water off Vancouver Island every day for a year would provide a dose of radiation less than one-thousandth the amount of a single dental X-ray, Woods Hole said.
The news comes as Japanese lawmakers mull a report on the future of the country's nuclear power provision that recommends Japan increase its reliance on energy baseloads, such coal and nuclear energy, according to Bloomberg News. Baseload energy — as opposed to renewable resources like wind and solar, are electric generation resources that operate continuously.
The Fukushima plant, 130 miles north of Tokyo, was hit by a tsunami in March 2011 after an earthquake that measured 8.9 on the Richter scale. The massive waves sparked triple nuclear meltdowns, which forced more than 160,000 residents to flee nearby towns and contaminated water, food and air.
Nearly 16,000 people died as a result of the natural disaster, and 2,600 others are still missing, according to official figures. There have been no known fatalities due to radiation exposure related to the incident.
Nonetheless, it was the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
As a result, Japan and five other countries, including the United States, signed the Convention on Supplementary Compensation on Nuclear Damage, which will take effect on April 15, The Japan Times reported. The treaty requires signatory parties to contribute to a fund that will cover damages in a country that suffers a nuclear accident. Japan's contribution is estimated to be about $1 million a year.
As for Fukushima’s aftermath, Buesseler said he expects low cesium levels to gradually reach other North American shores, possibly from Washington state to California.
"Predicting the spread of radiation becomes more complex the closer it gets to the coast," Buesseler said.
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said its conclusions were drawn from research it collected from community groups and a network of local academics and aquariums to collect water samples and fund radiation testing.
In November, Woods Hole reported detectable radiation from Fukushima about 100 miles off the coast of Northern California, but no radiation has yet been detected any closer to U.S. shores.
Tests off the coast of Japan shortly after the 2011 disaster measured radiation at 50 million becquerels per cubic meter, Buesseler told Reuters. A becquerel is a unit of radioactivity. The Canadian water sample contained 1.4 becquerels per cubic meter of cesium-134 and 5.8 becquerels per cubic meter of cesium-137.
Al Jazeera and Reuters