Health Canada monitoring stations located along the B.C. coast recently detected a very small increase in radiation levels due to the unfolding nuclear catastrophe in Japan following a massive earthquake earlier this month.
A 9.0 magnitude earthquake, hundreds of aftershocks and a devastating tsunami rocked Japan on March 11, killing tens of thousands of people and displacing many others.
A series of explosions from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex was then reported followed by a meltdown of the power stations reactor cores, releasing radiation into the air.
While Japanese workers are still struggling to stabilize the reactors, fears are increasing across the globe about the potential hazards of radiation reaching other nations.
The Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the troubled facility said via a press release, that they are working hard to stabilize the situation, however the company said the nuclear power station has been severely damaged.
“The national government has instructed evacuations for those local residents within a 20 kilometre radius of the site periphery and to remain indoors for those local residents between 20 kilometres and 30 kilometres radius of the site periphery,” the release said.
“We will continuously endeavor to secure safety and monitoring of the surrounding environment,” Tokyo Electric Power Company officials said in the release.
The most powerful earthquake on record to hit Japan has also sent shock waves across Canada, amid public fears that radiation may reach Canadian shores.
Health Canada already has in place a fixed point surveillance network that monitors doses of radiation from radioactive materials in the air and they recently installed nine additional monitoring stations along the B.C. coast.
The fixed point surveillance network stretches across Canada from shore to shore and allows the country to be better prepared in case of nuclear or radiological incidents, such as the Japanese nuclear reactor meltdown.
Leslie Meerburg, Health Canada’s media relations officer confirmed that there has been very small levels of radiation detected by Health Canada monitors throughout Canada.
“The levels are the same as expected for normal background radiation levels [radiation that is constantly present in the environment and is emitted from a variety of natural and artificial sources]; however, our detection and analyzing equipment is so sensitive that isotopes [atoms] have been identified which are indicative of those being released in Japan,” she said.
These isotopes are products [referred to as fission products] of the process that takes place inside a nuclear reactor and are not normally seen in the Canadian environment. “These levels do not pose a health risk to Canadians,” she added.
Meerburg used the example, “To put this level of radiation into perspective, a five hour airplane flight exposes a person to 50,000 times more radiation than the level of isotopes being detected as a result of the incident in Japan.”
Meerburg also said that there is chance that radiation levels could increase.
“Even background radiation levels increase and decrease on a daily basis,” she said.
“If there is a much larger release of radiation from the nuclear plant in Japan, the levels of radiation detected in Canada would continue to remain very low and would not pose a health risk to Canadians,” Meerburg added.
She also explained that the nine additional monitors were placed on the B.C. coast only as a precautionary measure.
“Health Canada is deploying an additional nine monitoring stations on Canada’s West Coast and the Yukon to bolster its existing network of monitoring stations,” she said.
“This is consistent with actions taken by other countries. Most of these stations are activated and are transmitting data,” Meerburg said.
Simon Fraser University (SFU) researchers are also attributing increased levels of the radioisotope iodine-131 in B.C. seaweed and rainwater samples to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor situation in Japan.
SFU researchers say that radiation from the Japanese nuclear reactor has now been detected in B.C. seaweed and rainwater samples.
An SFU press release said that tests have found iodine-131 in samples taken in the Lower Mainland on March 19, 20 and 25.
SFU nuclear scientist Kris Starosta said he is confident Fukushima is responsible for the recent discovery, but he cautions there is no immediate danger to the public.
“As of now, the levels we’re seeing are not harmful to humans. We’re basing this on Japanese studies following the Chernobyl incident in 1986 where levels of iodine-131 were four times higher than what we’ve detected in our rainwater so far,” Starosta explains.
“Studies of nuclear incidents and exposures are used to define radiation levels at which the increase in cancer risk is statistically significant. When compared to the information we have today, we have not reached levels of elevated risk,” he said.
The rainwater was collected at SFU’s Burnaby campus and in downtown Vancouver, while seaweed samples were collected in North Vancouver near the SeaBus terminal.
“The only possible source of iodine-131 in the atmosphere is a release from a nuclear fission,” Starosta said. “Iodine-131 has a half-life of eight days, thus we conclude the only possible release which could happen is from the Fukushima incident.”
According to SFU, the jet stream is carrying the radiation from Japan to North America.
Most of the radioactivity disperses in the atmosphere and falls over the Pacific Ocean, but some of it has reached the West Coast, falling with rain and mixing with seawater. The radiation is also accumulating in seaweed.
SFU says that Starosta and his team of researchers will continue monitoring iodine-131 levels. Seaweed samples taken from Barkley Samples from Vancouver Island’s West Coast are also in the process of being tested.
Starosta predicts iodine-131 will be detected in B.C. three to four weeks after the Fukushima nuclear reactor stops releasing radioactivity into the atmosphere.
Director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano said via a news briefing, “The situation [in Japan] remains very serious.”
The world’s chief nuclear inspector said the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has still not been overcome and it will take some time to stabilise the reactors. “For now, radioactivity in the environment, foodstuffs and water, including the sea, is a matter of concern in the vicinity of the Fukushima plant and beyond. Current levels indicate a need for further comprehensive monitoring,” he said.
“It is vitally important that we learn the right lessons from what happened on March 11 and afterwards, in order to strengthen nuclear safety throughout the world,” he said.
For now, Japanese officials are still scrambling to bring the nuclear power plant under control, while the world watches, waits and monitors the radiation levels on their shores.
For more information Canadian monitoring of health risks from the Japanese disaster go to www.publicsafety.gc.ca.