Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

Fukushima Fallout: San Diego State Researchers Monitoring Sea Kelp for Radiation Exposure

Screen_Shot_2014-02-13_at_10.46.21_AM.png
Fukushima Fallout: San Diego State Researchers Monitoring Sea Kelp For Radiation Exposure
Fukushima Fallout: San Diego State Researchers Monitoring Sea Kelp for Radiation Exposure
GUESTS:Matthew Edwards, Professor of Biology, SDSU Todd Anderson, Director, SDSU's Coastal and Marine Institute

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's been nearly three years since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan that caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. One of the disasters that resulted was the leak of radioactive material into the Pacific Ocean. One of the big questions that scientists have been asking is, will the radioactivity reach our coast and enter our ecosystem? San Diego State researchers will be joining in a new program to monitor one of the most vulnerable areas of the green environment, kelp beds, for radioactive isotopes. Earlier today I spoke with Matthew Edwards and Todd Anderson , here's that interview. [ [ AUDIO FILE PLAYING ] ] MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Matt, why is this research beginning three years after the Fukushima meltdown? MATT EDWARDS: The basic reason why now is a good time to start on this is that it takes time for this water to move across the Pacific three to five years of the time is one of the predictions, so we're expecting if these waters are contaminated waters, they will hit sometime early this year and persist for the next year or two, that would be the prediction. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is that because of current patterns that we're seeing early signs of this anywhere? Back up in Alaska are people testing for radiation from Fukushima with different patterns? MATT EDWARDS: They have been testing in different areas of the North persisted assist Pacific and in velocity started to testing late last year and as a test for crossing the moved slowly through the ocean and is a long-distance and they don't come straight across they just move it to this route that it takes time for these things to travel across the Pacific. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Have they found anything in their initial testing of the Alaskan coast? MATT EDWARDS: I've spoken with colleagues and they did look around the Bay and some of the communities. They did not find elevated levels there. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you remind us how the radiation got into the ocean in the first place? MATT EDWARDS: Well, my knowledge of the actual processes not as good as it could be if I were working on that side of the spectrum, near the plant, but we know that the water from the plant dumped into the ocean and the waters right around the plant that were cooling the plant became contaminated, and those waters leaked into the Pacific. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is it still leaking? MATT EDWARDS: As far as I know it is still leaking, the numbers are way down and that is something I am not certain of the process of that going on right now, but I believe there is still some leakage going on. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How is the radiation showed up in plant and sea life near the coast? TODD ANDERSON: My knowledge is those concentrations are much higher in the Japan coast and what we are dealing with is a substantial. After that with the current address and our expectation of what those concentrations will be on the West Coast are much less. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And there have been a number of reports about the Fukushima plume, is this the radioactivity that you're hoping to track or monitor with this project? TODD ANDERSON: It's definitely linked back, we talk about what we're talking about a kind of consolidated mass of water moving in a unison, that has happened here but also dealing with currants and water and motion of the ocean, things just dissipate and they become more deluded as they spread out, if you think about putting cream in your coffee put a little bit of motion cheered coffee, the cream does not stay there it really becomes uniform and of all dissolved throughout, sending kind of happens in the ocean, as this water is moving we're trying to attract this large body of water that would be contaminated as it moves each word that can't eastward across the Pacific. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Based on what Todd said, you are obviously expecting lesser concentration in their finding right here the Japanese coast, do you expect to find any Reggie radiation in your research across the coast? MATT EDWARDS: We do and the levels on Japan are substantially, spouses of thousands of times higher, we do expect to find levels but however the levels that we are fighting are somewhere near detection levels, their very low levels and not really anything different than things that you would encounter in your everyday life, and things that we do and eat, if you have an x-ray done, we do live in a world that has radioactivity around us all the time, and what we're expecting it from some of the grand preliminary studies that have come out in Alaska or out of the world health organization, one of the things where they looked at it and seen very low levels above detection level so we can detect it like they are not levels that we would consider dangerous or of concern to ecosystem or societal health or fisheries yet. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's talk a little bit more about the radiation that already exists in our waters, is that from nuclear runoff from our plants in California? TODD ANDERSON: I don't think we have had nuclear leakage in California, I have not heard of any, but we do live in a world where we have radioactivity around us, and all we're really talking about is decaying, and so in every day life there are things that are redirected up there, but they're just very low levels. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Todd do people get too concerned immediately on hearing the fact that there are existing reactive levels in our waters already? TODD ANDERSON: I think part of it is just understanding where these radioactive comfort comes from, and we have background levels and we certainly have had a levels since the nuclear test back in the day, and part of this is when people hear radiation they can have a very knee-jerk reaction to that, but we really have to do is become up the concentration of those contaminants correct reactivity of it that we examined, and what I think will be useful to this project is that one of the things he can do since occurrence of bringing particles to the left coast we can look at the rate at which they come down the West Coast and where do we find them. MATT EDWARDS: I think that is good question, what are the things that I have kind of encountered the last week and a half or so, when we of would restart talking about radiation and the environment is a little bit like can people have this knee-jerk reaction, like, talking about. And so would you share this, it brings up a concern, it brings of fear and that is understandable. However what we want to stress is at this point even though we're studying this, we don't think that these are going to be a problem, right now, we will learn that but we're not taking the study because we believe there is impending disaster or impending health concern, this is designed to verify if we can even identify these radio nucleotides on this side of the Pacific and if we can identify them, we can quantify that an intelligent there, is really an exploratory study to ask the question can we even find these things, four defined very high levels, then we would be in a different situation and will probably be pursuing this more earnestly. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And not to add to the reaction, but I have been reading that the type of radioactive isotopes release from Fukushima is actually especially dangerous, it is cesium isotopes, tell us about that. MATT EDWARDS: Cesium 134 and 137, cesium is the byproduct of nuclear fission reactions with nuclear weapons or from nuclear reactors, and have this to be particularly nasty, the kind of think of reactivity that up there, there are other types of radioactive material out there that are not as damaging to us, that we encounter them in our everyday lives, but cesium is particularly interesting to us because this will be expected to be reduced. From a nuclear reactor the seven disaster and is also one of the more dangerous types of radio activity out there. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One that you would necessarily think would be existing off our coast in the kilobytes, already if you find it though, we deftly have come from Fukushima. MATT EDWARDS: That is our belief. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're speaking about the new project that is underway to examine San Diego felt that's, project Watch to look for radiation levels, I want to ask you totter Matthew, poses research would get underway? TODD ANDERSON: Well, first they want to point out that this project was really the brainchild of a doctor at Cal State Long Beach and he started this up, and Doctor what he did is he invited whole sweep of colleges of them there was close to goodwill to look at what we're going to be doing is going up to the kelp forest and collect, and then bring it back so lab and dry the kelp and in get all the bulk water out and then graded down to a fine powder, that part of the project is set to gear up the next few weeks, and I will be going out the kelp forest most likely next week to do our first collections, of endemic of the collections are expected to start in the next few weeks and then they will continue through about three times a year for the next year, so we can actually look at coral patterns as well as spatial patterns of endemic coast. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And why kelp? MATT EDWARDS: It's easy to collect, it is the primary base of food web, it is also providing lots of habitat for other organisms, it's of endemic coast and it's something that we can collect, within one or two species and we're quite the something that we can look at it as a standard to collect that particular species, and to look at the concentrations in them. TODD ANDERSON: That is absolute correct and kelp basically ideal in that tends to be a sense of what is out there, so we know that they take up things like heavy metals, and they will take up other elements from their environment and so, we analyze the tissues the really good rapid patient they're really good representatives of what is in the environment, so I been done because we have these really big expensive code kelp beds which are going to sample the ocean very well for us, they are there through the years, and they're one of the last barriers between the ocean and the shore, and for that water to travel from the open ocean to the shore, it has to pass through the, so they are ideal for whole number of reasons. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Will you be able to make take the information that you get from an examining the kelp as to how much or how much radiation is in the fish off the coast? MATT EDWARDS: Absolutely, they don't think directly, the kelp is a primary producer plant organism and the fish generally going to be feeding and other things, and so they are not secondary, we do expect the camps to be a really good indicator of this, and leaching of the fish we do say that the fish are very contaminated on independent and in Japan and the levels are much higher than I've seen and by the time they are on the side of the ocean, it's come a great distance in the has been a while and it's taken a lot of time to get here, reports I've seen from our coastal waters for things like bluefin and yellowfin tuna, is that the levels are still very low and although we get can detect it, and we see the force of reactive material being detected, they are still done in background levels of the two expenses of it in our lives. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What kind of learning will UCSD provide for the students are going to be aggregation this research project? TODD ANDERSON: What is great about the project we have a lab down in San Diego Bay and the lab is one of the few that has been built in the urban setting and that allows us easily to be both basic brain biology and ecology as well as applied research, and this particular project is nice because it interfaces with a lot of things that might be really interesting to see as well as a lot of the market trust, extensively have done it to a variety of projects they look at, or contaminants and pollutants and the effects on this behavior and interactions, and things that matter actually works out as well as we even have a student working on the effects of boat noise on stress responses, so this is a really strong interspace these days from conservation focus as well as a baker's basic focus on ecology and so we have a student group and they are called the breed ecology biology students and they have been together almost 3 years, they have been test with the racing I reached to the public as well as doing also the things to learn more and engage themselves not only with the process but with talking to the public and in fact if I may say, we're having an open house on March 9 and they take the lead on basically making a very nice presentation and all kinds of exhibits and activities, and they've even started a similar series in a laboratory so it's been a great experience to them and this is the kind of thing that several students will participate in. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Matt? MATT EDWARDS: That is fantastic, and if you step back and look from a educators point of view, we have a bunch of students coming to that are generally concerned about the environment and solving it issues in the environment and one of the perfect opportunities to get a bunch of students who want to take basic research and use that to address potential societal could turn concerns and even though if they don't expect to find things, we don't know that is the purpose of the study, and what great way to get students involved in to get and use their skills to begin and go out and address things that people are interested in. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And we haven't started this yet, but you have a projection as to when you might know or have at least some results from this texting? TODD ANDERSON: It will depend, it becomes a quantitative sent to us this excites and will get Stridently had reground to a fight fine powder that takes a bit and we did quite a bit of guilt do this, and so, what's that happens we ship it to UC Berkeley will be analyzed and we have to work on timetables of numerous colleagues and sometimes you're getting everyone on the same page of the same time, it can be a little bit difficult if everyone has different lives, have busy lives, and we dedicated this project and we guess late later this year we should get the first symbols back and that will be a team again to drop the year two of you were separate. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have been speaking with Matthew Edwards and Todd Anderson, thank you both very much.

It's been nearly three years since the devastating 9.0 earthquake and destructive tsunami in Japan that caused a meltdown at the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Among the environmental disasters that resulted from that meltdown was the leak of radioactive material into the Pacific Ocean. One big question that scientists have been asking is: Will that radioactivity reach our coast and enter our ecosystem?

Now San Diego State University researchers will be joining in a new program to monitor one of the most vulnerable areas of the marine environment —kelp beds — for radioactive isotopes.

"The root reason for this study is there's a nuclear disaster and the waters around Fukushima are heavily contaminated," said Matthew Edwards, professor of biology at SDSU, who is part of the research team, "...we know there's a major impact there (Japan)...the question becomes: Is it going to impact other ecosystems?"

As part of "Project Kelp Watch 2014," some 50 scientists will be taking kelp samples from more than 30 locations off the California coast, including Point Loma and North County.

In addition, researchers from all along the western seaboard will be looking at kelp beds from Alaska to Mexico to determine any radiation exposure.