Fukushima - Frequently Asked Questions

Updated March 2017

The Department of Health continues to work with local and federal partners to monitor for radioactive contamination from the damaged nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan. Nothing has been found in Washington that poses a health risk.

Are Washington beaches safe for beachcombers and clam diggers?

Yes, the beaches are safe for beachcombers and clam diggers. There are natural radiation levels in the ocean and in beaches. However, nothing that would cause harm. We've tested shellfish collected from Pacific beaches in Washington for radiation and found extremely low levels, which is normal. There are natural radiation levels in the ocean and in beaches. However, nothing that would cause harm. In addition, the World Health Organization reports there are no health risks from Fukushima radiation releases for people living outside Japan.

There were news reports in early 2017 about dangerous amounts of radiation found at Fukushima. Wouldn't that reach us in the United States?

On February 3, 2017, Japanese news outlets (Japan Times in English) reported that extremely high radiation levels were found inside a containment vessel of one of the nuclear reactors. These extremely high levels of radiation are caused by the damaged fuel inside the vessel and remains confined to the vessel. Although this complicates cleanup at the nuclear power plant, high levels of radiation have not been seen in the environment.

There have also been reports of radiation in groundwater that continues to be dumped into Japanese waters. When will that contaminated water reach Washington beaches?

We know that radiation-contaminated water in Fukushima continues to enter the Pacific Ocean from groundwater flowing into the basements of the damaged reactors and turbine buildings. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, contamination levels, except at the seaport directly offshore from Fukushima Daiichi, remain far below the World Health Organization's guidelines for radiation in water.

Trace amounts of this contamination have been found in the Pacific Ocean by U.S. and Canadian agencies, and by private groups. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, in conjunction with the National Science Foundation, operates a monitoring program to detect contamination on our coastline. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found “no evidence that radionuclides from the Fukushima incident are present in U.S. food supply at levels that would pose a public health concern.” In addition to FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency monitors water, air, and other environmental sources.

Isn't it true that any amount of radiation is too much?

We are surrounded by radiation – from the sun, from rocks in the ground, and from everyday items and activities. Radiation has many beneficial uses, such as X-rays and cancer treatment. There are also higher levels of radiation in ocean water that date back to when atomic bombs were tested through the 1960s. The challenge is how much is too much? Both state and federal agencies set guidelines for how much radiation is safe. For example, if we decide that any amount of radiation is too much, no one would ever get radiation treatments for cancer. Radiation is no different than other things that can make us sick if we get too much of it. More information can be found on NRC's Radiation All Around Us website.

Could fish caught off the Pacific coast have radioactive contamination from the damaged nuclear reactors in Fukushima?

Studies show that no fish or shellfish off the Pacific coast have radioactive contamination that would pose a risk to people who eat them. The state Department of Health has tested a limited amount of fish and shellfish to look for radioactivity from nuclear power plants. All test results were far below levels that would pose a threat to peoples' health.

If there's another big earthquake in Japan, will we have to evacuate our West Coast due to radioactivity?

Earthquakes in the Pacific Ocean and Pacific Rim countries are always a potential threat, mainly because of possible tsunamis. In Washington, a tsunami could lead to evacuating people and animals from coastal areas to avoid risk from surging waves. However, the need for such an evacuation would not be due to radioactivity, even if there's another nuclear accident in Japan

With a predicted "plume" of radioactive water coming our way, is the Pacific Ocean being tested for radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant?

Organizations collecting and analyzing water samples from the Pacific Ocean to check for radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant:

Washington Department of Health also regularly tests seawater from Puget Sound near Bremerton and Bangor for radioactivity.

What about the ‘melting starfish?' Isn't that happening because of radiation?

Cases of “sea star wasting syndrome” have been reported on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts for at least a decade, which predates the Fukushima nuclear disaster. There's been no evidence that radiation is a cause, although the actual cause is unknown. The University of California-Santa Cruz is leading a study on this issue. Surveys in Washington are coordinated by Western Washington University. More information is available at www.seastarwasting.org.

Can I use a Geiger counter to detect radiation from Fukushima?

The short answer is “no,” and here's why: Geiger counters cannot determine whether the source of radiation is man-made – such as from Fukushima – or natural – from rocks and soil. News reports about high count rates detected by a person using a Geiger counter on a beach near San Francisco were unlikely to indicate radioactive material from Fukushima. The California Department of Public Health (PDF) tested the same beach in January 2014 and found that elevated radiation is due to naturally occurring thorium-bearing minerals in beach sand, and not material from Fukushima. These minerals are common, and often elevated, in some beach sands.

Other Questions?

If you have questions about radiation, call 360-236-3300 or email RadiationInfo@doh.wa.gov.