In the aftermath of the nuclear meltdown that occurred at Fukushima, Japan in 2011, there has been continued discussion regarding the safety of nuclear energy as a power source. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake damaged a nuclear reactor. Now, as leaked radiation approaches the West Coast of North America, the question of radiation has become a renewed topic of discussion and alarm. Although the federal government assures citizens that the radiation levels that have been found through testing do not pose a danger to those who live on the West Coast, many remain unconvinced.

According to research done by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the largest institution of its kind in the United States, the radiation from Fukushima is likely to reach the West Coast by April of this year. This forecast has alarmed people who live in the area, especially those who surf or are involved in the fishing industry. In January, the Tahltan people of British Columbia called for increased government involvement in radiation testing. An online petition that calls for a United Nations takeover of the Fukushima cleanup has more than 128,000 signatures.

Despite widespread fears, the radiation levels are one thousand times less than the safe limit set by the Food and Drug Administration. In other words, the average banana contains more radiation than fish affected by the Fukushima incident. According to University of Washington oceanographic researcher Kim Martini, radiation levels are, “about 20,000 times less than drinking water standards. And so what we like to say is it’s detectable but harmless.”

The area in which West Coast residents’ concern seems most valid is the lack of government monitoring of the situation. The FDA has been monitoring radiation levels in food, and independent research entities and scientists have been testing radiation in fish since 2011. The EPA monitors air and water quality across the United States, but the extent of its radioactivity testing capabilities lie in a network called RadNet, composed of 132 stationary testing facilities. Many complain that these scattered facilities are hardly adequate to cover the amount of ground required to fully monitor the Fukushima radiation situation.

It is not just concerned civilians that feel that the government’s monitoring of the situation is inadequate. One of the most outspoken researchers on this issue, Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole, says that neither the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, nor the Department of Energy, have the jurisdiction to test radiation in seawater. Buesseler was concerned enough that he took matters into his own hands and founded a volunteer driven research project called Our Radioactive Ocean. The group tests water supplies for elevated radiation levels, but so far, their results have been unassuming. While the group has been finding cesium-137 (evidence of old nuclear testing in the Pacific) in their water samples, they have yet to find evidence of cesium-134, the isotope associated with Fukushima.

Despite the reassurances of various government and independent sources, many coastal dwellers remain alarmed. Concerned citizens have taken matters into their own hands, forming groups along the West Coast with the intent of monitoring radiation themselves. Many of these activists use Geiger counters, which monitor a variety of different kinds of radiation, including radiation that is natural in certain areas. In order to raise awareness, activists often post videos of their findings on social media sites. Although the intent is well-meaning, researchers often say that the popularity of these videos belies their inherent inaccuracies.

So the situation stands on the West Coast. Researchers insist that there is nothing to worry about, and activists are unwilling to listen. It remains to be seen how western states and provinces respond when the plume actually makes landfall in April.

Image courtesy of Julia Suber