LONG BEACH—Nearly three years after a massive meltdown hit Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, a significant study headed by a California State University, Long Beach biologist is investigating the long-term effect of radiation leaks linked to the event within California shore waters.
Sparked by the catastrophic 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which hit off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku in 2011, Steven Manley and fellow biologist Chris Lowe sought to examine radioactive iodine contamination off California’s coast just weeks after the incident. Backed by funding from the USC Sea Grant, the duo collected samples of coastal kelp to determine the impact felt on the West Coast. They later published a 2012 study in “Environmental Science and Technology,” summarizing their findings.
“We used kelp to dictate the arrival of radioactive iodine that was coming over in the atmosphere,” Manley said. “That radioactive iodine that was injected into the atmosphere during explosions in Fukushima got entrained in a low pressure system and that low pressure system came over in about eight days to the West Coast. The radioactivity that it contained rained down on the West Coast, including the kelp bed.”
In an effort to further assess the lasting effect of these radiation leaks, Manley, with help from a slew of supporters, instituted Kelp Watch 2014.
“[The project’s] designed to use our coastal kelp beds as a detector for the arrival of radio isotopes from Fukushima and seawater,” he said. “I started it because of the lack of information about what was in the water and how much radio activity was in the water. Since no government agency was really overseeing it. I decided it would be great to use kelp as our central organism since it’s found up and down our coastline.”
Manley is joined by Kai Vetter of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkley, Calif., who analyzes the kelp samples taken from 44 different sites. The project also includes more than 40 participants from the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, academic arenas and governmental institutions throughout the coastal region. USC Wrigley, specifically, has assisted with collection in the waters off Catalina Island.
Most participants collect the kelp by hand via snorkeling, kayaking, scuba and by boats such as Parkers and Boston Whalers.
“One thing I want to make clear, eight days after the event in Japan, that’s when we got the airborne materials here,” he said. “Kelp Watch 2014 is looking for the waterborne material. That’s taken at least over three years. It hasn’t yet arrived according to our data. The ocean currents are much slower. As that material moves toward the east, the material dissipates, dilutes and decays.”
With one sample session already completed in March, participants will test the kelp two additional times between the summer and winter months. The initial session, where collection lasted several hours, did not produce any Fukushima-borne radioactive contaminants in the kelp.
Manley said a second data collection will be completed in early July and a third in October. He added that researchers and collectors will gather about 6.5 kilograms (about 14 pounds) of kelp during each run.
“That material gets dried and grounded down to a uniform particle size,” Manley said.
From there, the kelp will be analyzed in Berkley and posted on the project’s website. Manley said collection has spread, due to elevated interest, into Alaska, Hawaii and Guam.
Manley said additional funding from the Sea Grant and the California State University Coast Program has been used to defray some of the cost of shipping and processing the kelp prior to analysis. However, he said donations are currently being sought to offset the collection cost. Visit Kelpwathc.berkley.edu for updated collection results and to donate.