There’s been a bit of an unnatural glow to seafood’s image since late July, when Tokyo Electric Power Company admitted highly radioactive water has been leaking from the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Officials now acknowledge hundreds of tons of contaminated water, which had been used to cool damaged reactor cores after the spring 2011 meltdown, has been spilling daily into the ground and likely flowing into the Pacific Ocean.
One blog post making the rounds on Facebook, ominously headlined “At the Very Least, Your Days of Eating Pacific Ocean Fish are Over,” suggests the radioactivity will quickly spread throughout the ocean, contaminating everything in it. That may be rooted in some legitimate science, but leading experts say the reaction is overblown.
An Aug. 22 BBC News article quotes Ken Buesseler, a marine chemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who’s studied the spread of Fukushima radionuclides in the Pacific, saying certain radioactive isotopes could accumulate in seafood and present risks to human health. But in an FAQ on the Woods Hole website, Buesseler clarifies it’s only certain species in the coastal waters off Fukushima, in fisheries that have been closed, that are unsafe to eat. He’s not concerned about seafood caught even a short distance from there, much less off the U.S. West Coast.
“EVERYTHING IS A TINY, TINY BIT RADIOACTIVE.”
A German study published in Environmental Research Letters last year found the contaminated water could reach the U.S. West Coast within five years, doubling its pre-Fukushima peak radioactivity but resulting in levels still within safe drinking-water limits. Much hype has also been made of a Hopkins Marine Station study showing bluefin tuna carrying two radioactive isotopes from the 2011 meltdown – but levels were so low, a person eating nothing but cesium-contaminated tuna for a year would be exposed to less radiation than from a dental X-ray.
“The recent reports of radioactivity in seafood from Fukushima detected very, very small levels,” writes Steve Palumbi, director of Stanford University’s Hopkins in Pacific Grove, by email. “The leaked radioactivity cannot really drift here – it has to be absorbed by a fish over there and then swum here… In fact, the overall level of radioactivity was barely above what is normal in fish. (Everything is a tiny, tiny bit radioactive!)”
Justified or not, any public perception of Pacific seafood as unsafe could impact California’s fishing industry. Monterey Fish Company owner Sal Tringali, however, says he hasn’t noticed any consumer alarm. “They check some of these fish for radiation, and they’re completely clean,” he says. “I think the ocean’s so big, it just disappears.”
Monterey Harbormaster Steve Scheiblauer hasn’t heard from worried consumers or fishermen, either. “I probably would have heard about it [if there were a market impact],” he says. “If there’s any effect, it would be to drive people to buy local products. That would be my reaction.”
Given the leak’s high profile, scientists and government agencies say they’ll continue to monitor radiation levels in the Pacific. On Sept. 3, the Japanese government announced plans to build a $470-million “ice wall” – freezing the soil around the plant to 100 feet deep – to help contain the leak.