Intelligent Energy

A tale of two radioactive beaches, as Fukushima's reopens

Posting in Cancer

Levels deemed safe. Do these places emit less radiation than a banana? Or than the granite of Yosemite?

It's not glowing, but it's radioactive. The granite wonders of Yosemite National Park.

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It's getting well into July, so let's go to the beach - and then climb the mountains - for a bit of summer school.

Today's lesson is about radioactivity.

It was a bit surprising to see this headline in the Guardian a few days ago: Fukushima beach reopens to the public. "Locals enjoy splashing in the sea for the first time since the tsunami and nuclear disaster," the story declared. And boy do those kids at Nakaso beach look happy in the article's photo, which I can't reproduce here, for rights reasons.

But wait, isn't the beach laced with radioactivity following the meltdowns over a year ago at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station 40 miles to the north? After all, the 16 other Fukushima prefecture public beaches remain closed. The Guardian writes:

According to the local authorities, the concentration of radioactivity in the water is negligible, at below 1 becquerel per litre, and poses no risk to the health of sunbathers and swimmers. Radiation readings are displayed on the beach twice a day.

Another shot of granite at Yosemite, because I like this place so much and won't get there this summer.

Meanwhile, the UK had a similar development, although you wouldn't know it from a different flavor in a separate Guardian story this week, headlined, Record number of radioactive particles found on beaches near Sellafield complex. Sellafield is a nuclear facility in northwest England where as the story notes,

As many as 383 radioactive particles and stones were detected and removed from seven beaches in 2010-11, bringing the total retrieved since 2006 to 1,233.

So they closed the beaches, right? Wrong!

Although Sellafield insists that the health risks for beach users are "very low", there are concerns that some potentially dangerous particles may remain undetected and that contamination keeps being found.

This tale of two beaches rekindles the debate about radioactivity. The word itself sends people running to the hills. Too much radioactivity is indeed, without a doubt, deadly and deserves all the popular negative connotations of the word.

But radioactivity is all around us in constant harmless doses. Radioactivity buffs regard it as a wondrous process of natural decay. They'll never rebrand radioactivity to the public that way. Nor should they - let me be clear that caution is always in order.

But there is obviously a difference between caution and hysteria.

Guess where? I'd hug these radioactive slabs.

To illustrate radioactivity's ubiquity, granite is radioactive. Keep that in mind next time you're marveling at the majestic rocks and cliffs at Yosemite - one of my favorite spots on earth - or preparing food on a granite counter top.

The Guardian quotes a Sellafield spokesman saying that beaches in England's southwest - which sits atop granite - are more radioactive than those near the nuclear complex.

"It should be noted that people visiting beaches in places on the south coast, such as Devon or Cornwall, will receive a far higher dose of radiation, from naturally occurring background radiation, than those visiting beaches close to Sellafield," says the spokesman.

Okay, the Sellafield guy might be biased, but that doesn't mean he's fibbing.

Later this summer, I hope to tell you the story about the radioactive banana that you've probably already eaten. And if that story gets you heading to the hills, you better hope they don't sit on granite!

Yosemite photos: Top from Heiko von RauBendorff; middle from chensiyuan, both via Wikimedia. Bottom from Mark Halper (yours truly).

More Fukushima energy coverage on SmartPlanet:

A slightly different view on Fukushima radioactivity, from SmartPlanet:

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure