Radioactive contamination from Fukushima found as far north as Alaska's Bering Strait

Workers in front of storage tanks for radioactive water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, on Feb 18, 2019.
Workers in front of storage tanks for radioactive water at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, on Feb 18, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA (REUTERS) - Radioactive contamination from Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant hit by a tsunami in 2011 has drifted as far north as waters off a remote Alaska island in the Bering Strait, scientists said.

Analysis of seawater collected last year near St Lawrence Island revealed a slight elevation in levels of radioactive caesium-137 attributable to the Fukushima disaster, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Sea Grant programme said on Wednesday (March 27).

"This is the northern edge of the plume," said Ms Gay Sheffield, a Sea Grant marine advisory agent based in the Bering Sea town of Nome, Alaska.

The newly detected Fukushima radiation was minute. The level of caesium-137, a by-product of nuclear fission, in seawater was just four-tenths as high as traces of the isotope naturally found in the Pacific Ocean.

Those levels are far too low to pose a health concern, an important point for people living on the Bering Sea coast who subsist on food caught in the ocean, Ms Sheffield said.

Caesium-137 levels some 3,000 times higher than those found in the Bering Sea are considered safe for human consumption under United States Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standards, officials said.

A 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami in March 2011 triggered meltdowns at three of the Fukushima Daiichi plant's six reactors, spewing radiation into the air, soil and ocean and forcing 160,000 residents to flee.

It was the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl 25 years earlier.

LONG-TERM STUDY

The results reported on Wednesday came from a long-term but small-scale testing programme.

 
 
 

Water was sampled for several years by Mr Eddie Ungott, a resident of Gambell village on the north-western tip of St Lawrence Island. The island, though part of the state of Alaska, is physically closer to Russia than to the Alaska mainland, and residents are mostly Siberian Yupik with relatives in Russia.

Fukushima-linked radionuclides have been found as far away as Pacific waters off the US West Coast, British Columbia and in the Gulf of Alaska.

Until the most recent St Lawrence Island sample was tested by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the only other known sign of Fukushima radiation in the Bering Sea was detected in 2014 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NOAA scientists found trace amounts of Fukushima-linked radionuclides in muscle tissue of fur seals on Alaska's St Paul Island in the southern Bering Sea. There was no testing of the water there, Ms Sheffield said.

The people of St Lawrence Island, who live well to the north of St Paul Island, had expected Fukushima radionuclides to arrive eventually, she said.

"They fully anticipated getting it. They didn't know when," she said. "The way the currents work does bring the water up from the south."