UC Berkeley Nuclear Engineering Web Site Shows Bay Area Radiation Levels

Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear plant after earthquake and tsunami. (Photo: DigitalGlobe via Getty)

Click here for the UC Berkeley radiation monitoring site

Two weeks ago when we were all freaking out expressing concern about radiation from the ill-fated Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan wafting our Bay-Area way via the Pacific Ocean, we posted these interviews with several scientists and health experts, all of whom assured us there was nothing to worry about, silly laypeople.

To which reader replies included this:

"Just show us actual Rad. Levels and we can make up our own minds. Show us real time hour by hour Rad Levels! not that i don't trust you, Yes I don't trust you."

EE Cummingsesque capitalization aside, point taken on the transparency issue. So... radiation watchers take note: from today's San Jose Mercury News:

Five thousand miles from Japan, UC Berkeley scientists don't have to read the headlines to know what is happening at a crippled nuclear power plant. They just need to glimpse at their computer screens.

There, a steady stream of data from Berkeley's air, rain and creekwater samples shows peaks and troughs of radioactive contamination -- posing no threat to Californians' health, but telling a tragic tale of Japan's struggle to contain the threat.

"We can find out what's going on just by looking at the radioisotope signatures," said research scientist Daniel H. Chivers, sitting at a laptop in the dark basement of the university's engineering building, where equipment for a routine class was quickly transformed after the accident into a sophisticated radiation detection system...

(T)he UC Berkeley team, led by nuclear engineering professor Kai Vetter, publishes its daily analysis on the department's website.

Did someone say website?

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On the UC Berkeley Nuclear Engineering air and rain water monitoring pages, you can see radiation data measured from samples collected on the roof of Etcheverry Hall on the UC Berkeley campus and read a narrative log of results.

The site contains a lot of information that's not that easy to interpret. But this explanation should help:

In the table below the three plots, we are providing two numbers for each of the isotopes. The first is a standard concentration unit of Becquerel per liter (Bq/L) which describes the number of particles decaying over the period of one second in one liter. For the general public, we have converted this number to an exposure dose per liter of air breathed (or water consumed for the rain water measure). The number in parentheses is the number of years of breathing the air (or the number of liters of water consumed) that would be needed for a person to receive the radiation exposure of a single round trip flight from San Francisco to Washington D.C. (0.05 mSv).

So, for example, on the rain water page, scroll down to the last date on the chart, March 26, then look in the column for the isotope I-131 (Iodine 131). There, you'll see in parentheses the number 728, which means you'd have to drink 728 liters of water containing that level of Iodine 131 to consume the same amount of radiation you'd be exposed to when flying in an airplane cross-country.

Meaning: We're still a long way from dangerous, at least in these parts.

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You can take heart -- or not -- from this quote:

"There is nothing of concern here," Vetter said. "As long as Japan does not get another 9.0 earthquake "... there is no risk to California."

"They do not pose long-term risk, so long as the Japan workers are able to shut it down eventually," he said.

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