Fukushima Fallout: Nuclear Radiation Found in British Columbia
March 17, 2014
Larry Pynn / Vancouver Sun
The discovery of Fukushima fallout in the American Northwest -- in the form of radioactive cesium-134 -- is raising concerns for the health of local marine life and the downwind effects the explosion and meltdown of three US-designed nuclear reactors may have on humans living in North America. "It means there are still emissions . . . and trans-Pacific air pollution. It's a concern to us. This is an international issue."
Nuclear Radiation Found in B.C. May Pose Health Concerns
Larry Pynn / Vancouver Sun
(March 12, 2014) -- A radioactive metal from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan has been discovered in the Fraser Valley, causing researchers to raise the alarm about the long-term impact of radiation on B.C.'s west coast.
Examination of a soil sample from Kilby Provincial Park, near Agassiz, has for the first time in this province found Cesium 134, further evidence of Fukushima radioactivity being transported to Canada by air and water.
"That was a surprise," said Juan Jose Alava, an adjunct professor in the school of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University, in an interview on Tuesday. "It means there are still emissions . . . and trans-Pacific air pollution. It's a concern to us. This is an international issue."
Cesium 134 has a half-life of two years, meaning its radioactivity is reduced by half during that time. Its presence in the environment is an indication of continuing contamination from Fukushima.
A more persistent danger to people and marine life is radioactive Cesium 137, which has a half-life of 30 years, and bioaccumulates in the food chain.
Researchers developed a model based on the diet of fish-eating killer whales along with the levels of Cesium 137 detected and predicted (less than 0.5 becquerels per cubic metre, a measurement of radioactivity) by other researchers in the Pacific waters offshore of Vancouver Island.
The models suggests that in 30 years, Cesium 137 levels in the whales will exceed the Canadian guideline of 1,000 becquerels per kilogram for consumption of seafood by humans -- 10 times the Japanese guideline.
"It's a reference, the only benchmark we have to compare against," Alava said.
He said recent federal government cutbacks have placed a greater burden of testing and monitoring for aquatic impacts on academics, non-governmental organizations and even private citizens.
"The Canadian government is the one that should be doing something, should be taking action to keep monitoring to see how these contaminants are behaving, what are the levels, and what is next."
It was a citizen, Aki Sano, who provided SFU with the soil sample from Kilby park, near the mouth of the Harrison River, on Nov. 16, 2013. Samples of chinook, sockeye and chum spawning salmon nearby are also being analyzed for evidence of radiation.
While the soil sample tested positive for Cesium 134, the exact level is not yet known, although it is thought to be low. The plan now is to test soil samples from Burnaby Mountain, closer to Vancouver.
Earlier research by Kris Starosta, associate professor of chemistry, and his colleagues at SFU has shown evidence of Iodine 131, which has a half-life of eight days, in rainwater and seaweeds in B.C. Fisheries and Oceans Canada conducted the analysis of sea water off Vancouver Island.
An adult killer whale weighing up to 5,000 kilograms can eat five per cent of its body weight, or 250 kilograms of fish, per day.
Endangered resident killer whales already face a host of challenges: the need for high-protein chinook salmon, habitat degradation, underwater noise pollution, harassment from whale watchers, and climate change. While the additional impact of Cesium 137 is unknown, it may negatively affect the immune system or endocrine system, Alava said.
"The impact on the animal needs to be studied. This is part of a cumulative impact on the marine environment."
The results raise concerns for aboriginal people who maintain a diet heavy in fish.
"We might expect similar results because the diet of First Nation communities is based on seafood," Alava said. "Humans at the top of the food web can perhaps see increasing levels in the future."
The Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant suffered a catastrophic failure due to a 9.0-magnitude earthquake on March 11, 2011, which killed almost 19,000 people. Alava noted the plant continues to leak radiation, meaning that the problem is not going away soon. "There's going to be a long-term exposure to organisms building up in the marine environment."
While radiation levels so far remain low, the long-term implications deserve further study.
"So far the levels are safe," Alava said. "We shouldn't be worried now, but we need to keep monitoring in the long term to see whether these levels are building up in the food web."
A victim of federal cutbacks, Peter Ross, a former research scientist with the federal Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney on Vancouver Island, joined the Vancouver Aquarium last month as director of a new ocean science program.
Ross said he worked almost 18 years at the institute until Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced in May 2012 it would cut 55 positions nationally, nine of them within B.C., as part of a plan to "divest itself of ocean pollution research and monitoring to the private, non-profit and academic sectors."
No one at Fisheries and Oceans Canada or Health Canada was available immediately to comment Monday.
Alava noted that there remain low background levels of Cesium 137 dating back to the 1960s due to the dumping of radioactive material into the Pacific Ocean from nuclear submarines and reactors.
The BC Centre for Disease Control has been notified of the latest research finding.
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