It’s insidious. An odorless, colorless, tasteless pollutant has entered our food chain. I’m talking about the vast plume of radioactive isotopes drifting eastward across the Pacific Ocean from Fukushima, Japan. We know the crippled reactors are bleeding cesium, strontium, tritium, plutonium and other byproducts of nuclear reactions into the ocean and it isn’t stopping. And the reassurances from Japan are not trustworthy. “Let me assure you, the situation is under control,” Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said during lobbying for the 2020 Olympics. “There are no health-related problems until now, nor will there be in the future.”
What we don’t know is whether or not Pacific coast seafood is safe to eat. I spent the summer of 2014 in Alaska and Canada trying to answer that question. I spoke with experts and regular folks. Oyster farmers and sport fishermen. Their attitudes varied from existential fatalism to alarmist. For most it is out of sight and out of mind. The media reporting is thin and subject to manipulation from nuclear interests. It’s a complex topic that most people don’t want to know more about.
I asked the ranger at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center in Homer, Alaska if he was getting many questions from visitors about radioactivity in Pacific seafood. “They asked more questions a few years ago” he said. “I really can’t recall anyone asking about it this summer.”
So it’s a potential crisis that’s flying under the radar. A lot of heads in the sand too. What to do?
Frank and Margot Reveil own the Jakalof Bay Oyster Company. It’s across the bay from Homer and sits in a pristine glacier-fed bay. Wednesday through Sunday they bring the most gloriously fresh oysters to the Homer Brewing Company. Freshly shucked with shallot mignionette or nothing at all, they are magnificent molluscs.
The Reveils have an interest in the quality of their water. When I asked Margot about it she said she spends time working with InletKeeper, a non-profit that works to protect the Cook Inlet, a significant Alaskan fishery.
They are participating in Ken Buesseler’s Our Radioactive Ocean project and have raised enough through CrowdRise to pay for one round of testing and are seeking additional funds to test the Kachemak Bay waters over time. Their first sample is in progress.
“But we don’t drink seawater” protests former licensed reactor operator Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates. “Sure, swim in the ocean, breath the fog but don’t eat fish without knowing the data.” Without data about the cesium and strontium content of seafood, Arnie and his wife Maggie are not eating any seafood from the Pacific Ocean. “The Government is not releasing data about the bioaccumulation of radioactivity Pacific Ocean fish. Until there is fully transparent radiation data on fish, eating them is a risk I personally have chosen to avoid.”
When it comes to testing seawater and sea products for radiation it’s still a game of who do you trust. When asked about Kelpwatch’s samples, Arnie noted that they are being tested at UC Berkeley. He doesn’t trust their data. Their Nuclear Engineering Department is funded by government and the nuclear industry and are very pro-nuke. It’s the same with data from MIT. They even have an engineering chair endowed by TEPCO, the Japanese company that owns Fukushima Daiichi.
When I asked Arnie who he trusted he said “Virtually nobody. There just isn’t enough data yet.” He trusts the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution but they are only testing sea water at fixed locations. Testing seafood is what’s needed.
For the record, I’m still eating Pacific seafood. I’m 59 and at my age I’ll probably die of other causes before a radioactive induced cancer gets me. But that’s a selfish point of view. The bigger question is what is going to happen to those younger than me.
This is a slow motion disaster with effects that will last long after I’m gone. There’s not enough trustworthy information for consumers to make rational decisions about their source of seafood. The lack of information is one way to keep the problem off the radar of the seafood consuming public. Perhaps there are too many dollars at risk to test for radioactive isotopes in the food we eat.
The industry and government do not want to alarm us. Under these circumstances, the only comfort comes from Arnie. “The important thing to remember is that right now there is no risk free place to live on Earth.”