Don’t Fear The Fukushima Floaties – March 3, 2012

Saturday, March 3, 2012

All Humboldt Operational Area Members,

Floating objects originating in Japan commonly reach West Coast beaches. For example, until just a few decades ago, glass balls (floats) from Japanese fishing nets were actively sought and often found here.

Scientific models indicate ocean currents take two to three years to move floating objects from Japan to the West Coast. Therefore, objects arriving on our beaches now and for the next year were in the water before the Japan earthquake and tsunami occurred in March 2011.

Over two weeks ago, some ocean debris (a large float) was discovered on the beach near the mouth of the Mad River. At some point early in the response, concerns were expressed that the object could have originated during the Japan tsunami event last March and that it could be a radiological hazard. Because of the report and the uncertainty about the object, response entities had no choice but to treat the response as a possible radiological incident until it could be proven otherwise.

The object and the persons who had come in contact with it were monitored and determined to be free of any radioactive materials. The response to this incident involved many local, state, and federal agencies/personnel, and the proceedings were closely watched by local and out-of-area entities until the situation was resolved.

I’m sure you are all aware of the many stories from varied sources about the tsunami event and its impacts on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Many of the stories warn of the potential radiological dangers which could be inherent in the debris field now floating in the Northern Pacific and which could eventually reach West Coast beaches. The floating debris consists of all manner of items which have managed to not sink in the long voyage across the Pacific.

In point of fact, any tsunami debris originating from the Fukushima area was swept to sea days before the radiological incidents occurred. And, even if there was some wind-blown radiological contamination, the long journey in the water and exposure to weather would diminish the radioactivity levels.

While subsequent information has proven the story projections to be false or almost impossible to have occurred, much of the public has not learned that the potential for harmful radiation exposure is extremely unlikely. Many persons still believe harmful radioactive objects are floating toward our beaches.

While it is possible that some items in the debris field could have some low level of hazard such as an unknown chemical in a buoyant container, radioactivity is not considered to be one of those likely hazards. The probability that any found debris is hazardous is very slight. If found debris does appear to be of a type which could be hazardous, it should be treated with due caution (not alarm), and authorities should be notified.

Floating objects from the Japan tsunami last March could begin to reach our beaches early in 2013. As the arrival time approaches, more and more information about the debris objects headed our way and about any hazards they could possibly contain will be promulgated to the public.

Local, state and federal entities will provide consistent information so as not to confuse anyone. That information dissemination process has begun. However, it is not expected to be in full swing for some time to come.

In the meantime, we need to do what we can to disseminate factual information and allay any public and responder misconceptions. We also want to minimize the occurrence of a disproportionate response to a found beach debris incident such as happened near the Mad River recently.

Some links to enlightened information about the debris field are listed below. Please make this information available to persons within your entities and to the public you serve.


Dan Larkin

Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office OES

826 Fourth Street

Eureka, CA 95501

(707) 268-2502

NOAA is the federal lead on the tsunami debris. They have the simplest FAQ page:

Mid-page is a link to a two-page handout version of some of the info.

Also on the same page is link to a podcast “Making Waves, Japan Tsunami Marine Debris.” It is only 12 minutes long and very informative. It is quite suitable for the public.



Interesting tsunami debris drift model on YouTube: