No Radioactive Threat Expected From Tsunami Debris

By DAN JOLING | January 23, 2012

A half dozen large buoys suspected to be from Japanese oyster farms and carried across the Pacific after the country’s devastating tsunami 10 months ago have appeared near Yakutat at the top of Alaska’s panhandle.

Late last year, a black 55-gallon drum-sized float believed to have washed away from a Japanese coastal city was found by crews cleaning a beach on the northwest tip of Washington. Other floats have been found on Vancouver Island.

As more debris shows up, there’s little need to be worried that it will be contaminated by radiation, state health and environmental officials said Friday.

They have been working with federal counterparts to gauge the danger of debris, including material affected by a damaged nuclear power plant, to see if Alaska residents, seafood or wild game could be affected.

“From what we found from the data that is available, the answer is no,” said Kristin Ryan, environmental health director for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. “There is no concern to us that there’s any radiation impacts in Alaska, to our environment, that we should be worried about at this time.”

Ryan spoke at a marine debris panel organized by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to inform residents of what’s been found and what they can expect from material generated by the Japan tsunami.

A 9.0 earthquake on March 11, 2011, generated a 130-foot wave that devastated 217 square miles in Japan, said Peter Murphy, Alaska coordinator for the marine debris program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The area was equal to 15 percent of the municipality of Anchorage, he said.

More than 15,000 people were confirmed dead in the tragedy, and thousands remain missing.

“This is first and foremost a human tragedy,” he said.

Among the damaged facilities was the nuclear plant complex at Fukushima, and meltdowns created fear that radioactive debris could find its way to Alaska shores.

Hideo Fujita, head of the Japan Consulate in Anchorage, said more than 20 million tons of debris was produced but not all was pushed into the ocean and that some sank offshore.

His country’s health officials say radioactivity would dissipate before it reached Alaska, he said.

Experts divide debris into two types. Buoys would fall into the category of “windage” debris that could have sped more quickly across the Pacific because it’s pushed by wind as well as currents, said Dave Gaudet, marine debris program coordinator for the Marine Conservation Alliance.

The group has helped oversee removal of 2 million pounds of debris from Alaska shores from Ketchikan to Kotzebue even before the tragedy last year. It organizes people to monitor debris and uses volunteers to pick it up.

With tsunami debris, he said, people will be instructed to be recover and protect personal items.

“We have to remember this was a tragedy. These people’s homes were taken off the shore … We recognize there could be some items that are going to be mementos that people are going to want returned,” he said.

Debris that’s not out of the water is crossing the Pacific at about 7 miles per day, he said.

The main body of debris is in the latter category and is not expected to reach West Coast shores, including Alaska, before 2013.

Federal, state and private entities will rely on beachcombers, pilots and mariners to report what is hitting Alaska waters and shores.

Robert Johnson, a photographer in Yakutat, said at least six barrel-shape buoys 3 feet in diameter and 4 feet long have showed up on beaches in the last two weeks. Hard plastic football-shape buoys also are showing up, he said.

He had seen a dozen of the floats in his 30 years in the community and he’s confident they’re tsunami debris.

“It’s not coincidence,” he said.

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