UAF researcher concerned about Fukushima debris headed toward Alaska

Tegan Hanlon

A scientist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks says he is concerned about the radiation in the debris floating across the Pacific Ocean from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan toward Alaska and the U.S. and Canadian west coast.

Why is he worried? While there are many computer models for predicting the radiation movements, no one agency is funded to regularly sample the actual levels of radioactive elements in the plumes of debris, according to UAF researcher Doug Dasher.

"There's a lot of unknowns, there's a lot of uncertainties," Dasher said in a teleconference call with Alaska reporters Wednesday arranged by UAF.

Dasher, technically, isn't funded for his research into the radioactive contamination either. But tracking what's happening with the Fukushima debris runs parallel to radiation issues he's already working on in the gamma lab at the UAF campus, said university spokeswoman Sharice Walker.

The debris comes from a tsunami and earthquake in Japan and the 2011 nuclear plant meltdown that followed the natural disasters. Between 1 and 2 million tons of debris spilled into the Pacific Ocean.

According to computer marine models, Dasher said some debris will reach the West Coast between 2013 and 2014 and move up the coast line to Alaska between 2014 and 2020.

"But there has been no kind of consistent effort to track the plume movement to the West Coast," Dasher said. There isn't an agency funded to figure out when radiation will arrive or "what exactly the levels will be," he said. The best answer he could provide for when the debris could hit the western area of the United States was "shortly."

The marine models do not predict that the concentration of one of the radioactive isotopes in the debris -- cesium -- will pose a health risk, according to Dasher. But, he added, "We don't have actual information to scientifically stand behind it."

While continued radioactive leakage has been reported as recently as August from the nuclear plant site, government officials also maintain that the levels of radioactive materials floating in the water aren't a cause for concern, with the ocean's great power to dilute.

The Food and Drug administration released a report in September there was "no evidence that radionuclides from the Fukushima incident are present in U.S. food supply at levels that would pose a public health concern."

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration has produced charts where the debris may be located based on modeling, but does not predict when the bulk will hit U.S. shores. NOAA says some of the more buoyant items hit the Pacific Northwest coast during the winter of 2011 and 2012.

Still, Dasher wants to know what's in that debris and he'd like to see a multi-agency group funded to conduct that research, because when it comes to people asking him questions about concrete data concerning potential radioactivity, his reply is: "There's no real answer to that right now."