A Bay Area Beach Video Stirs Fukushima Radiation Fears -- But Shouldn't

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Japanese government officials and nuclear experts inspect work at the badly damaged Fukushima nuclear plant.  (AFP-Getty Images)
Japanese government officials and nuclear experts inspect work at the badly damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AFP-Getty Images)

The other morning on KQED's "Forum" program, we invited listeners to call and write with ideas about what we ought to be covering in the coming year. We got lots of ideas for coverage on health, technology, arts and culture, politics and the economics of living in this region. We also heard requests for coverage on science and environmental subjects, including this one from a caller named David:

I would love to see some coverage of the radiation spread from Fukushima Daiichi. I feel woefully uninformed, and I've heard reports that the radiation releases could affect the whole West Coast, which seems extreme except I've been hearing things. Hearing what its impact is, both short term and long term, would be great.

In fact, KQED has been getting questions for months about the West Coast impact from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster that followed Japan's 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The questions often appear to be prompted by claims made in blog posts like this: 28 Signs That the West Coast Is Being Absolutely Fried by Radiation from Fukushima  -- posts that appear to be long on hyperbole, alarmism and cherry-picked facts and short on data and reasoning. In response, one of our science editors came up with a letter (see the end of this post) that points to what we believe to give well informed and well researched sources of information on the local impact of Fukushima radiation.

The questions are still coming, stirred partly by concern over the impact of one of the world's most serious nuclear disasters and partly by the continuing stream of Internet "evidence" suggesting radiation from Fukushima is poisoning us and wreaking havoc on the environment. Just this week, for instance, there's this: Fishermen in Mexico discovered conjoined gray whale calves off the Baja coast. That much is true, and from what early stories say, it could be the first time conjoined gray whales have ever been seen. But you don't have to go far to find reports like this, on a site called The Voice of Russia: Two-headed whale found in Mexico. Is Fukushima radiation responsible?

Huh? Who said anything about a two-headed whale? Or Fukushima? The question in the headline is sensational and leading, and the answer the piece gives is of the "no one knows — but it could be!" variety. (For a more sober take, check Slate: No, That Conjoined Whale Calf Was Not Caused by Fukushima.)

The Video From Surfer's Beach

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The biggest recent Net-enabled Fukushima shocker originated in our own backyard. It came by way of a YouTube video shot near Half Moon Bay and posted just before Christmas. From there it has gone viral. (Here's one version, possibly the original judging from the traffic it's gotten, though it misidentifies the location as Pacifica State Beach: Fukushima Radiation Hits San Francisco?)

What exactly does the 7½-minute video show?

It features a man visiting the beach with a Geiger counter, a device that detects the presence of radioactive material (here's one simple description of a counter and what it measures). Typically, a Geiger counter emits a clicking sound when it counts a radioactive particle and gives a readout of "counts per minute" (CPM), the rate of radioactive particles it's detecting. The higher the CPM, the higher the radiation.

The Surfer's Beach video begins in a parking lot, and the Geiger counter shows what's considered to be a normal background level of radiation, about 30 CPM. But when the man holding the counter walks down to the sand, the level jumps and tops out at 156. The man, identified elsewhere as "Dave," says: "And so the width of the sand pretty much the length of this particular beach it looks like is contaminated at least three times over (background radiation levels)."

There's Radiation — But Not From Fukushima

The video has prompted public health officials to look at what's going on at Surfer's Beach. As several local media outlets have reported, both county and state health officials are saying the radiation probably has a natural, local origin. Here's David Perlman in the San Francisco Chronicle, who wrote that tests of sand from the beach "show that the radiation has come from natural sources — most probably from ancient rocks eroded in the bluffs above." The story continues:

"There is no public health risk at California beaches due to radioactivity related to events at Fukushima," the California Department of Public Health said Tuesday.

"Recent tests by the San Mateo County Public Health Department show that elevated levels of radiation at Half Moon Bay are due to naturally occurring materials and not radioactivity associated with the Fukushima incident," it said.

Mark Noack of the Half Moon Bay Review has also been reporting on the video and on what's causing the radiation readings on Surfer's Beach. One of the people he's talked to is Steve Weiss, a Geiger counter designer who lives near the beach:

On Monday, Weiss carried a Geiger counter in each hand for a second survey of Surfer's Beach. As he descended to the waterline, the readings on his gadgets climbed. He tested various spots: the side of the bluffs and the white sand closest to the waterline, both registering levels that were high but not suspiciously so as far as he was concerned. But when he placed the sensors down near a line of black silt along the back of the beach, the meters on both his gadgets spiked. The counters registered about 415 counts per minute. A cpm of 30 is considered the baseline for radioactivity typically found in the air.

“It's not normal. I've never seen 400 cpm when I just wave my Geiger around.” he said. “There has to be something radioactive for it to do that.”

Weiss is no amateur; for 40 years he has made a living designing Geiger counters, most recently for International Medcom Inc. After he verified the hots pot, he took a sample of the dark sediment and sent it to his company's main offices in Sebastopol for analysis.

The company's CEO, Dan Sythe, analyzed the samples. He reported on his own blog, Geiger Counter Bulletin, that the radiation in the sand emanated from radium and thorium — "naturally occurring radioactive materials" — not from the cesium isotope that would show it to have come from Fukushima. Sythe characterized the radiation level as "elevated, but roughly equivalent to some granite counter top material from Brazil." And he said the actual source of the Surfer's Beach material still merits investigation.

So, what's the takeaway?

Concern over the long-term impact of Fukushima is understandable. The disaster is akin to an ongoing experiment that will be teaching us about radiation's impacts for many years to come. At the same time, it's pretty clear there's nothing to the almost daily claims that the West Coast is being blasted, flooded, roasted or fried by Fukushima radiation. For the 10,000th time: Always be skeptical and questioning of what you read on the Net, and look for context and confirmation for any and all claims. We don't exempt our own offerings from that advice either.

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Here's the letter we've sent to listeners and readers who have asked for information about the impact of Fukushima radiation on the West Coast:

Thank you for being a KQED listener and for your email regarding Internet buzz about ocean contamination from the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Information on the Internet that claims that the tsunami debris near the West Coast is radioactive, or that huge plumes of nuclear water are heading for the West Coast, or that fish here are carrying dangerously high levels of radiation, is false. These claims are unsubstantiated and not supported by scientists who have studied the issue.

We’d recommend reading this information — Fukushima Radiation — from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, one of the world’s leading marine science organizations. The writer, Ken Buesseler, organized the first comprehensive study of the spread of radionuclides from Fukushima into the Pacific Ocean. He gained expertise on the topic when he studied the spread of radionuclides from Chernobyl into the Black Sea.

Similarly, here is a post on a website run by marine scientists that addresses each of the concerns that have arisen on several sensationalistic and misleading websites and explains why they are inaccurate: 28 fallacies about the Fukushima nuclear disaster’s effect on the U.S. West Coast.

Finally, here is the Natural Resources Defense Council on the topic: Fukushima Radiation Risks from Eating Fish.

We hope this explains why the KQED Science team hasn’t covered this topic. We do cover a range of topics concerning the ocean ecosystems and marine life off the coasts of Northern California, and would not ignore credible information concerning radiation poisoning in these waters.