SHORELINE, Wash. -- Do salmon and steelhead returning to Washington rivers come with a dose of radiation from Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant? Washington State Department of Health officials don't think so, but they're testing fish anyway.
In the days following the 2011 Japan tsunami, the damaged Fukushima plant was cooled with seawater to try and get it back under control. That sent large quantities of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean.
At the DOH lab in Shoreline, lab tech John Raney begins filleting a steelhead caught in the Columbia River last week. Soon, the fish is in a blender.
"What we want to do is homogenize the sample to get a good representation,” said Raney.
After several minutes and multiple glove changes to prevent cross contamination, a specially shaped container with the blended fish muscle inside is placed into a gamma detector. The heavy cylindrical case will pick up any nuclear signature in the sample. The test takes about 18 hours.
Technicians are looking primarily for two isotopes: Caesium-137 and Iodine-131. Both isotopes are associated with nuclear power production.
While Iodine-131 can lead to thyroid cancer, its short half life of only eight days means it has already reached extremely low levels after 80 days. The Caesium-137 has a half life of 30 years, but is water soluble and heavy. State health officials say that means it's unlikely to have made it into migratory fish like salmon and steelhead.
"We're planning on collecting returning salmon and steelhead until public concern abates,” said Mike Priddy, the Richland-based manager of DOH’s Environmental Sciences Section.
Priddy said clams will also be tested.
As for that steelhead tested in lab, no radiation beyond normal background levels found naturally was detected.