Scientists test kelp for traces of Fukushima radiation

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Scientists across the West Coast plan to test kelp over the next year to see if it's absorbing radioactive material from the partial Fukushima nuclear meltdown.

Three years ago when the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan was hit by a tsunami, radioactive isotopes like Cesium-134 and 137 were leaked into the ocean.

Water from that initial disaster is expected to reach the West Coast later this year.

Related: Iodine 131 found in California kelp, part of fallout from the Fukushima incident

When it arrives, it will be absorbed by common kelp, says Cal State Long Beach researcher Steven Manley.

He points out that kelp soaks up Cesium like a sponge

“That’s one reason that we chose kelp because it concentrates Cesium by twenty-fold,” Manley said, explaining that kelp can hold 20 times more Cesium than the water around it.

Researchers will collect the rubbery ocean plant over the next two weeks to get a sense of what Cesium levels are like before the first pulse of Fukushima’s tainted water reaches the west.

The samples will be dried in ovens, ground to a powder and sent to Lawrence Berkeley National Lab for testing.

Later, in the summer and fall, scientists will go back out for more kelp to note any changes in Cesium levels.

Steven Manley expects the radioactive material detected will be small and diluted to the point of being harmless.

“But the reason we are doing this is we don’t know. So we want to find out.”

International effort

The project is called Kelp Watch 2014.

Manley says he started it in part because he received a lot of e-mails and phone calls when he published a study after Fukushima that found trace amounts of Iodine 131 had come to California in the atmosphere.

"People were really concerned and there seemed to be a lack of information out there."

So to gather more information, he started Kelp Watch with Kai Vetter of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

They planned for this to be a California project, but as word of it spread, more scientists signed up.

“Latest count we have over 40 different sampling locations ranging from Kodiak Island in the north to Baja California in the south.”

There are researchers from Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and even as far south as Chile participating.

Among them is Michael Stekoll, a researcher with the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau.

He plans to dive 30 feet into the ocean in order to round up about 14 pounds of kelp.

"The biggest challenge will be collecting the stuff in winter," he laughed. Stekoll says he'll have to wait for decent weather before he can start collecting.

All of the data from Kelp Watch 2014 will be available to the public once it is ready.

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