California Researchers To Begin Testing Kelp For Fukushima Radioactivity

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

With radiation-tainted waters from the Fukushima nuclear disaster expected to wash up on American shores this year, California scientists are taking steps to monitor West Coast waters for radioactivity.

According to a U-T San Diego report, researchers from San Diego State University will begin testing kelp beds off the coast of California for radiation levels. The San Diego scientists said hazardous radioisotopes cesium-134 and cesium-137 from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power station could make their way to our shores very soon.

“We don’t know if we’re going to find a signal of the radiation,” project scientist Matt Edwards told U-T San Diego. “And I personally don’t believe it’ll represent a health threat if there is one. But it’s worth asking whether there’s a reason to be concerned about a disaster that occurred on the other side of the planet some time ago.”

The testing is being executed by the Kelp Project, a research program launched by Steve Manley, a California State University Long Beach biologist who has been investigating the ecological effect of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that hit Japan on March 11, 2011. The earthquake produced a tsunami that hit the Fukushima plant, producing a massive discharge of radioactive material into the ocean.

Less than a month following the catastrophe, Manley discovered small amounts of the radioactive isotope iodine-131 in kelp near Los Angeles. The isotope traveled across the ocean by air – then got rinsed into California’s coastal seas by a rainstorm. Manley published a research paper on his discoveries that stirred public concern, even though he stated that the material didn’t seem to pose a health threat.

“I got emails and calls from people who wanted to know if it was safe to visit the coast and to eat the fish,” Manley says. “I still get emails like that.”

In trying to allay people’s anxieties by more clearly and broadly gauging the radiation in coastal waters, Manley contacted marine scientists along the California coast to question if they would collect kelp samples that would be tested for a couple of kinds of cesium. Manley quickly saw dozens of offers for help, including one from Edwards.

The kelp researchers are expected to plot a course for the Point Loma kelp forest, the largest virtually contiguous area of giant kelp in the northern hemisphere. They also may gather kelp off the coast of northern San Diego County. Samples will be extracted from a minimum of 30 spots off California, and a handful in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Baja California. Further north, researchers will collect another related species, known as bull kelp.

The kelp will be dried then grounded into a powder, to facilitate the radioactivity analysis. These tests will be carried out quarterly, for around a year.

“Kelp is the perfect ‘sentinel’ organism for a project like this because it absorbs and concentrates things like radioactive material,” said Manley, a seaweed biologist. “Right now, the radioactivity from Fukushima has not reached here. If it does, we’ll be able to measure it, even though it will be really diluted.”