Photo by the IAEA Imagebank via Flickr. Licensed under CC.

When a sixty-six-foot-long cement dock beached itself in a scenic cove north of Newport, Oregon, people climbed atop it, posed and took photos. The dock had floated 4,700 miles from the town of Misawa on northern Honshu, Japan’s main island. It was the second large piece of debris to cross the Pacific Ocean after the 9.0 Tōhoku earthquake struck Japan’s east coast on March 11, 2011, killing nearly 16,000 people and unleashing a tsunami that decimated towns and washed between four and eight million tons of debris into the Pacific. A splintered, foaming mess containing cars and cables, houses, lumber, and human beings surged as far as six miles inland before spilling into the sea. About 70 percent of the debris sank, but a year later, 1.5 million tons, what the Los Angeles Times said amounted to “roughly 100,000 garbage trucks’ worth,” were still floating on the open ocean. The first piece of tsunami debris to reach North America was a rusty Hokkaido shrimping ship named the Ryou-Un Maru, which the US Coast Guard blasted with cannon fire 180 miles off the Alaskan coast, and let sink 6,000 feet. This seven-foot-tall dock’s Styrofoam filling kept it afloat, and a metal plaque identified its origins. As Hirofumi Murabayashi of the Japanese Consulate in Portland told the news, “The owner of this dock is Aomori Prefecture, and they told us that they do not wish to have it returned.” Authorities sawed off a section to display in a tsunami awareness exhibit at Newport’s Hatfield Marine Science Visitor Center, and Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber created a hotline to report tsunami debris.

People on the Oregon coast are used to picking up trash. Everything from lighters and plastic bags to huge swollen logs wash ashore, but this trans-oceanic material was different. Debris hunters came to photograph and collect it. Some sold their finds on eBay. Tsunami treasure hunting became sport, and the town of Seaside, Oregon even used it to attract tourists. But coastal trash is neither fun nor attractive. It strangles birds, poisons fish and damages fisheries, and it can carry invasive species. After Fukushima, debris provided powerful evidence of decreasing oceanic health, and it served as an undeniable symbol of ecological connectivity. If the trash made it this far, people reasoned, what about the radiation?

The massive tsunami that pounded Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in 2011 caused a triple meltdown, multiple reactor explosions, and released large but still unknown amounts of radioactive cesium-137, cesium-134, strontium-90, neptunium-237, uranium-236, plutonium-239 and -240, iodine-131 and -129, rutherium, tritium, and radium into the air, groundwater and ocean. The French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety’s report called the plant’s initial breakdown “the largest single contribution of radionuclides to the marine environment ever observed.” People named the radioactive material “the plume” and watched as it dispersed on various Pacific currents. With debris hitting the West Coast, the distance between Japan and the US no longer felt so vast.

As the California naturalist John Muir famously said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Initially, Americans wanted to think of Fukushima as Japan’s problem. We were here and Japan was there. So we sent our condolences and donated to relief efforts and got back to watering our gardens and eating sushi─myself included. The question many scientists were asking on everyone’s behalf was whether Japan’s problem was poisoning the plankton that larger fish ate. If so, it would poison us.

Scientists didn’t initially know how the radiation was moving through the marine ecosystem, or what it would do to marine life over time, but a few, like oceanographer Ken Buesseler, immediately started studying it, and many activists and conspiratorial bloggers knew that they had to cut through the governmental rhetoric and Tokyo Electric Power Company cover-ups to find the truth. One truth was as clear as it had always been: everything is connected. If you thought you were safe, you were wrong.

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Following the Daiichi nuclear meltdown, the Japanese government evacuated some 160,000 people from the contaminated area that officials deemed the Fukushima exclusion zone. Residents, utility and emergency workers, and US sailors on board the USS Reagan suffered radiation sickness while securing the reactors, offering humanitarian support, and cleaning up after the tsunami. Many Fukushima residents left their homes wondering what illness they would later contract; over four years later, only a fraction had returned home.

Home to 330,000 people, the city of Koriyama sits in central Fukushima Prefecture, about thirty-five miles away from the Daiichi facility; this places it fifteen miles beyond the shifting boundaries of the exclusion zone, at most. Fukushima Prefecture once produced peaches, tomatoes, rice, and beef. After the accident, farmers let irradiated crops rot in the fields, animals had to fend for themselves, and the city of Koriyama recommended that children between ages three and five play outside for no more than thirty minutes a day. Children up to age two were not supposed to spend more than fifteen minutes outside. In one Reuters article I read, the reporter overheard a mother at an indoor playground tell her kid, “Try to avoid touching the outside air.” I read a lot of articles.

Articles say that in Koriyama, three-year-olds know the word “radiation.” Before eating, they ask adults if their food is safe. According to Reuters, the city’s radiation levels have dropped since 2011, but its children continue to play indoors, and fear of exposure dictates many peoples’ behavior. At first, parents preferred strong preventative measures. Staying inside seemed wise. Over time, many started to worry about the long-term effects of an indoor life. Surveys found that Koriyama children were noticeably sluggish, had increased stress responses, and decreased grip strength and physical coordination. Many have never learned to ride a bike. The threat of radiation on land is real, but another disturbing health risk, both in Japan and here on the West Coast of North America, is psychological.

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I first visited the Oregon coast as a tourist in 1995. My parents and I came on vacation. We’d visited Seattle the previous summer, and western Oregon looked like an equally beautiful destination. By the time I graduated from college in Arizona, return trips had left me so in love with the Northwest that I moved to Portland in 2000, intent on sustaining myself on its moist air, clean tap water, and abundant local food. I was a co-op person. I ate ancient grains, organic produce, and lots and lots of seafood. I still do.

Much of the protein in my diet comes from Pacific fish. I love wild salmon and tuna as much as the small silver oily species: sardines, anchovies, saury, and herring. Small fish are rich sources of calcium, phosphorus, vitamins A and D, and omega-3 fatty acids. Protein sustains your energy. Certain omega-3s, like DHA and EPA, may reduce the growth of breast, colon and prostate cancer, lower blood pressure, prevent hardening of the arteries and heart disease, and possibly lessen the cognitive degeneration associated with Alzheimer’s. Americans take supplemental cod liver oil for omega-3, but my beloved little fish are naturally loaded with it. The general wisdom is that eating fish a few times a week is part of a healthy diet. It’s one explanation why so many Okinawans live to be centenarians. Seaweed, tofu, and tea are other reasons. I consume those foods every week.

We Jews eat lots of fish. I eat it for breakfast, for lunch, and for dinner─it doesn’t matter what season. After high school I vowed not to suffer my father’s health problems. I loved buttery country food like his, but I refused to suffer health problems that I caused myself through diet. So I went vegetarian for a while, later vegan. Now, I eat a more balanced healthy diet.

To cut down on our water and carbon footprints, my wife Rebekah and I even tried being weekday vegetarians: no beef, chicken, or pork Monday through Friday. At a time when the overfished Pacific bluefin tuna faces extinction, and farm-raised salmon’s nutritional and environmental costs are hotly debated, shifting my eating habits from livestock and large fish to durable “bait” fish felt like smart environmental stewardship. It’s called eating lower on the food chain. Many of those small fish sit low enough on the trophic ladder, and live short enough lives, that they aren’t as polluted with mercury and PCBs as higher order, top predators like tuna, sea bass, and swordfish. Many reproduce quickly, so they’ve rebounded from past overfishing and can be responsibly managed as a sustainable, healthy food.

To further lower my footprint, I usually buy Pacific fish, rather than fish imported from the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. The Pacific is less than one hundred miles west of our home in Portland. It’s the world’s largest ocean, and one of the most productive. But after Fukushima, I no longer feel safe eating from it. When I buy my monthly stash of Japanese, South Korean, and Thai canned fish, I wonder whether I should buy sardines and anchovies from Spain, Portugal, and North Africa instead.

Since moving to Oregon, I’ve visited the coast countless times. I’ve swam. I’ve boogie-boarded. I’ve been sprayed by waves crashing at the base of tall lighthouses, and I plan to hike and camp on the coast for the rest of my life. Rebekah and I bought a house to raise our daughter in. The blue water looks as true as it always has. But now when I visit places like Seaside and Newport, I look out over the ocean and wonder what’s in there coming for us next.

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In March 2013, two years after Fukushima, a fourteen-foot-long, black and red wooden beam was found on the beach near Oceanside, Oregon. It was a kasagi, the horizontal crossbeam that connects the two side beams on a Japanese torii temple gate. The following month, another kasagi beached itself near the Siuslaw River in Florence, a hundred twenty miles to the south. Locals rightly wondered if the kasagi were radioactive.

Cesium-137 can burn or sicken you on contact. When ingested, it accumulates in your muscles and other soft tissues, where it gives off the gamma and beta radiation that can cause cancer. Other Fukushima and Chernobyl nucleotides, like strontium-90, are easily ingested when they get in food and water. “Once in the body,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Sr-90 acts like calcium and is readily incorporated into bones and teeth, where it can cause cancers of the bone, bone marrow, and soft tissues around the bone.” As coastal Oregonians photographed and sold debris on eBay, others questioned the wisdom of handling trash from the world’s second worst nuclear disaster. Fortunately, authorities concluded that the kasagi were not radioactive.

Shinto temple arches are sacred, but no one knew where these originated until Sadafumi Uchiyama, curator of the Portland Japanese Garden, saw the beams in the news and tracked down the eighty-five-year-old man who’d dedicated the shrine in the town of Hachinohe. Uchiyama flew to Japan, met the man─who cried at the meeting─and helped ship the beams back for free.

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Since the nuclear accident, blogs filled with predictions. Websites with names like “Freedom Outpost” and “The Truth” exposed what they consider the real Fukushima story beneath the bureaucratic cover-ups. They ran color-coded maps showing the plume’s dispersal. They claimed that “The west coast of the United States is being absolutely fried by radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster” and declare “Dangerous levels of cesium-137 have been discovered in mushrooms and berries grown along the west coast.” Many of these sites dabble in other topics, such as voting fraud, IRS scams and how the film Noah, in one post’s words, “Promotes The Luciferian Gnostic Belief That The Creator Of This World Is Evil.”

Scientists counter such claims, dismissing them as pseudoscience, and pointing out how their authors misinterpreted the data or took it out of context. Not every bluefin tuna tested in California waters is contaminated with radiation, said the voices of reason. Every one of the fifteen bluefin that one study examined contained Fukushima radiation. But never mind the facts. Conspiracy theorists have banner ads to sell and self-published books to promote. Other people in positions of influence swung the opposite direction, away from apocalyptic end-times declarations, and made wild claims about safety that were just as irresponsible.

In March 2015, Forbes magazine ran an article claiming that “Contrary to all the hype and fear, Fukushima is basically a large Superfund site. No one will die from Fukushima radiation, there will be no increased cancer rates, the food supply is not contaminated, the ocean nearby is not contaminated, most of the people can move back into their homes, and most of the other nuclear plants in Japan can start up just fine.” When I read that I thought, Just fine? Not contaminated? The author’s flippant dismissal was as devoid of sympathy as it was of evidence, and it made me wonder if the magazine’s focus on business had warped its objectivity into protecting global business interests.

The conspiracy theorists respond to such claims with their own weapons of fantasy. Why do you think sea lions are dying by the thousands in Alaska and California?, they say. Why do you think the polar bears are losing their hair? They cite newspaper reports that show sardines bleeding from their eyes and gills, and they describe the California coast as a dead zone. “Have you seen as many seagulls as you did fifteen years ago?” one blog said. The rocks at California beaches are “unnaturally CLEAN,” warned Planet Infowars, “there’s hardly any kelp, barnacles, sea urchins, etc. anymore and the tide pools are similarly eerily devoid of crabs, snails ,and other scurrying signs of life…” The cause wasn’t warming waters or oceanic cycles, the bloggers assured us. It was radiation. And the worst was yet to come.

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Saury are one of my favorite fish, and they only live in the Pacific. I keep stacks of canned Japanese saury in our basement so I can easily heat them in a skillet to serve over rice. This is one of my standard healthy breakfasts. None of the research I’ve found says saury are contaminated, but I still can’t decide whether to give them up. I’ve been debating for two years.

Known to biologists as Cololabis saira, Pacific saury also go by the name “mackerel pike.” Koreans call it kongchi (꽁치). Russians call it saira (сайра), the Chinese qiu dao yu (秋刀魚). In Japan it’s called sanma (サンマ).

Translating as “fall swordfish,” sanma is one of Japan’s most popular fish, which is no small feat in an island nation whose citizens each consume between sixty and over one hundred and twenty pounds of seafood per year. Not to be confused with the nickname of Japanese comedian Sanma Akashiya, saury is a serious-looking, long slender swimmer related to the needlefish, and its appearance in Japanese markets and on sushi menus marks the beginning of autumn. The fish is so abundant, beloved, and easy to prepare, that the Japanese throw annual festivals celebrating its arrival. In 2012, the Meguro Saury Festival in Tokyo attracted 35,000 people. Here in the US, few gaijin have heard of saury.

The Edo Emperor ate saury pickled, raw, and salt-grilled. The most popular way to cook it now is sanma no shioyaki. “Shio” means salt, and “yaki” means grilled. This simple broiled preparation unleashes rather than masks the fish’s rich natural flavor─just fire and salt. Most Japanese homes have an electric, stovetop fish broiler, or one built into the oven; they’re like electric kettles in England, there by default. In Japan, restaurants usually serve sanma no shioyaki with grated daikon radish, sometimes a lemon or sudachi wedge. To bring out the flavor, you squeeze on the citrus, maybe drizzle on some shoyu, and place a bit of daikon on each bite. If the fish is longer than the grill, some cooks cut the fish in half. Most regular sanma cooks have a grill big enough to accommodate the fish whole–head on, guts in. The guts contain oil that keeps the fish moist, but they taste bitter. Some people eat the guts because they’re nutritious. Some people eat the guts to remind them of hardship, that life is a mixture of the bitter and sweet.

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I discovered saury by accident. I was shopping at a Japanese grocery store in the suburbs, browsing aisles of seaweed and savory soup stocks in search of old favorites and new foods to try, when I found tall blue cans of a fish called mackerel pike. Mackerel pike, I thought, which is it: mackerel or pike? Could a fish be both? Was this a translation error? Unlike the straightforward cod, sole, snapper, shrimp, I didn’t know what flavor to expect. Since the label was written in Hangul, I didn’t understand what this fish was or how to prepare it, but lower on the shelves, I found a Japanese version in small orange tins for $2.69 labeled “Sanma kabayaki.”

Unlike the first Korean cans, which were packed in salt water, this Japanese version was roasted and basted with a thick, savory, semi-sweet glaze made from soy sauce and sugar cane, a preparation called kabayaki. The seafood you’ll most frequently find kabayaki is freshwater eel, or unagi. Canned sanma kabayaki arrives similarly: filleted, headed, partially boned, broiled and basted, and to me, the flavor is even more delicious. Once I opened that first tin, I fell so hard that I now live off the stuff, buying ten to twenty tins at a time and stacking them in our basement.

Cans are small and easy to store. I cook the tiny fillets on a skillet, letting the heat further char their soft edges and caramelize the sauce. Sometimes I put the heated sauries on a salad. Usually, I serve them over warm white rice and eat them with a bowl of miso soup. This is my take on a traditional Japanese breakfast. One one hundred gram can of my go-to sanma kabayaki contains seventeen grams of protein and twenty-two grams of unsaturated fat. Total calories: 340. Like saba mackerel, saury is oily and rich, but the meat is lighter, whiter, and cleaner tasting. The mix of salt, fat, and umami satisfies in a way that lasts long after breakfast. Something about the fish-rice combination flips off the crave switch in my brain and drastically reduces my snacking urge, letting me work a long time and concentrate deeply. Sauries have become an integral part of my idea of healthy living. I was born in a nation of hot dogs and sausage patties, but I learned to take a cue from the Japanese and Koreans: eat more fish, drink more tea, and start eating saury.

In their 2008 song “Fish Heaven,” the Japanese band Gyoko– meaning “Fishing Port”–sings: “Fish. Fish. Fish. You get smart when you eat fish. Smart Smart Smart. Fish Fish Fish. You get healthy when you eat fish. Healthy. Healthy. Healthy.”

All the Fukushima books and articles I’ve been reading─not the conspiratorial blogs, but credible outlets like the New York Times, The Atlantic, and Scientific American─have helped me sort out some of what’s happening in the Pacific Ocean, but I’m still not confident that science knows enough to predict what’s still going to happen to Japan and America’s seafood supply over time. There’s so much information, so little understanding. All these conflicting sources─I can’t make sense of them, can’t synthesize.

Although we know that oceans are large and dynamic enough to dilute many poisonous materials, all that we don’t know could fill thousands of oceans. In the meantime, I keep reading more sources, and cans of sanma stack up in our basement. Nearly every week, I serve the little fish over rice. When it’s cold out, I crave their flavor. The weeks I resist feel emptier without them, but I resist because I can’t decide if I need to stop.

*

In 2013, South Korean banned all imports of fish from eight Japanese prefectures: Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, Aomori, Ibaraki, Gunma, Chiba, and Tochigi. South Korea found the Japanese government’s response to the disaster too weak to instill confidence in its seafood. Japan didn’t have a clear enough plan about how to contain the radioactive water that the Daiichi plant was leaking into the ocean. They still don’t. Japan contested the ban with the World Trade Organization, claiming a lack of scientific evidence. Korea hasn’t lifted the ban.

The phrase “Made in Japan” used to signify high quality. After WWII, the nation built itself into one of the most innovative, technologically advanced and wealthy nations in history. By the 1980s, Japan’s prosperity and industrial efficiency was the envy of the developed world. Consumers trusted Japanese products. Japanese automobile manufacturing systems were so sophisticated and efficient that American car companies tried to replicate them. Decimated by the War, Japan had something to prove. It labored for decades to claim its place in the world economy, and to repair its pride. It succeeded. Nuclear energy helped power its ascent.

Since China’s rise into a world power, the phrase “Made in China” started to make Americans worry about the quality of Chinese exports: was this dog food laced with melamine? Was there lead in this plastic toy’s paint that would poison my kid? Ours became an era of counterfeit Chinese mutton and honey products that contained no pollen, and “Made in China” became shorthand for cheap and questionable. As time passed after Fukushima and the sad Pacific swirled, some people started seeing the phrase “Made in Japan” the same way, casting its famed white rice and green tea into doubt, and left some of us wondering if Fukushima’s radiation would ever reach American shores.

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On a remote beach on Graham Island, British Columbia in 2012, a Canadian man found Ikuo Yokoyama’s rusty Harley Davidson motorcycle. Yokoyama had stored his bike in a white cube container in his backyard in Miyagi Prefecture. The tsunami swept it away and killed three members of the twenty-nine-year-old’s family.

In Washington’s Olympia National Park, another Misawa dock landed on a rugged stretch of coast between the Hoh River and the town of La Push.

In the Gulf of Alaska, radar technician David Baxter found a soccer ball near the FAA’s radar station on Middleton Island. The teenage owner, Misaki Murakami, had written his name on it, so Baxter and his wife shipped Murakami’s ball back to him in Iwate Prefecture.

Throughout coastal Alaska, spray cans, building insulation, plastic bottles, Styrofoam, and oyster farm buoys were washing ashore and worrying locals. “Whatever happens in the ground or air or sea,” Tlingit Tribal President Victoria Demmertt told CNN, “will end up in our bodies.” Wildlife eat the plastic, and people eat the wildlife─not just subsistence hunters like the Tlingit, but anyone who buys Alaskan salmon, which is a lot of people. Alaska produces approximately 80 percent of North America’s commercial wild salmon.

At the time of the Ryou-Un Maru in 2012, some experts predicted that the mass of debris would hit the US coastline in either March 2013 or March 2014. Eight months after the tsunami, one conspiracy-minded website warned that the “Largest pieces of radioactive tsunami debris could arrive on [the] West Coast of US and Canada ‘within days.'” No mass ever hit. The material that hadn’t sunk had dispersed across a 4,500-mile-long area so that, five weeks after the tsunami, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could no longer see the debris fields by satellite. But it wasn’t just visible debris that concerned people.

According to one color-coded map that went viral online, the imperceptible menace that author William Vollmann calls “invisible and insidious” in his 2015 Harper’s article was still out there, swirling and churning and making its radioactive way closer to Hawaii and America, and presumably moving up the trophic ladders from plankton to tuna and salmon.

Scientists had a good grasp of the impact of Fukushima radiation on land. In the ocean, the scale of the disaster was too great for even experts to fully decode, its location too complex. Oceans are mysterious. We only understand a fraction of what occurs in them. We understand very little about where and what salmon do when they leave rivers to feed in the ocean. We don’t know much about young Pacific albacore tuna’s migration routes before age three, only that they swim back and forth across the Pacific to feed and spawn. In fact, as Oregon State University research assistant Delvan Neville said, the small, safe traces of the “Fukushima fingerprint” isotope cesium-134 that his team found in Oregon albacore between 2008 and 2012 provided additional details into the fish’s migration route between Japan and the West Coast that science didn’t previously have. The cesium levels in those tuna were safe, but the concern was about what would happen in coming years.

A few months after Fukushima, Ken Buesseler, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, assembled a research team of seventeen scientists to sample the seawater, plankton, and fish near the Fukushima Daiichi facility. Buesseler knew someone had to measure the disaster’s marine impact in order to establish a baseline for coming changes. So in 2011, for fourteen days and nights, his team labored out on the ocean collecting samples, which were later tested by sixteen different international laboratories.

Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. Strontium-90 has a half-life of around 29.1 years. Cesium-137’s half-life is 30.17 years, cesium-134’s is two years, and tritium’s is 12.3 years. That means that ten half-lives must pass─about 123 years─before tritium’s radiation levels fall to something close to pre-contamination level. In that time, nucleotides like cesium and strontium accumulate in your bones and decimate your thyroid.

At the end of the research trip, Ken Buesseler wrote in his web journal:

“We’ve been out here 24/7 on a specialized research ship for almost two weeks with millions of dollars in equipment gathering more than 1,500 samples and thousands of gallons of seawater and the only thing we can say for certain is that, yes, there is radiation in the water and some of it came from Fukushima. Not exactly a stop-the-presses story. That will come later, but will anyone care at that point?…It’s easy to see how the public could become frustrated with science and the scientific process. People want to know if it’s safe to eat the fish or drink the milk. Decision-makers want to know what they should decide. Everyone wants the truth.

Scientists, though, cannot always arrive at definitive answers. There are error bars on data points and uncertainty clouding answers to even the most basic questions. There’s a reason for that. We live in a complex world that does not always lend itself to simple answers or definitive yes-or-no responses. Science is not about the pithy sound bite—it’s about reasoned responses and careful analysis of hard-won data.”

Meaning: we had to get used to not knowing everything quickly.

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As I sat outside in the shade on my lunch break recently, a man walked up and started talking. “You’re sitting outside in this heat,” he said, “working on your computer. I should buy you dinner for not sitting in your car running the air conditioning. I mean, come on! This is Portland. Do something.” He stared at me expectantly, waiting for agreement, affirmation, a response, anything, but I only gave him a glance before looking back down at my computer.

I only had six minutes left on my break. I was working on this essay when he approached, editing this sentence: “But the truth is as true as it was when the Native People fished the Northwest Coast, and when John Muir articulated it in his journals: everything is connected. If you thought you were safe, you were wrong.”

The man kept talking. “I mean, do something. Right? Everyone’s in their cars on their computers, staring at their computers and talking.”

He held a nice leather attaché in his right hand. His blue and white Hawaiian shirt and tan cargo shorts were as clean and unwrinkled as the clothes of the other business people who walked by on lunch. He seemed manic, but he arrived like a prophet of doom.

“Here we are now,” he said, “and everyone’s just sitting in their car running the air conditioning, looking at Facebook, like everything’s going to be fine tomorrow.”

I wanted him to leave.

He stood there and stared.

I didn’t engage. With my head down I said, “Have a good day, man.”

He waved his hands as he walked off, saying, “There is not going to be a tomorrow.”

*

At room temperature, cesium-137 occurs as a liquid. When it bonds with chlorides, it forms a powder. Besides nuclear reactors, the isotope is used in Geiger counters and medical and industrial devices.

In 1989, in apartment number 85, Building 7, on Gvardeytsiv Kantemirovtsiv Street in Kramatorsk, Ukraine SSR, authorities found a small capsule containing cesium-137 embedded inside the concrete wall. The radioactive capsule probably originated in an industrial instrument, somehow ended up mixed with the cement before or during construction, possibly when the instrument was improperly disposed of, and scrappers resold the scavenged material. Nobody knows. Two separate families lived in the apartment during the nine years between the building’s construction and the radiation’s discovery. Leukemia killed six of them. Seventeen got sick and survived. The incident is known as the Kramatorsk radiological accident.

Two scrap metal collectors in Goiânia, Brazil broke into an abandoned hospital in 1985 and found a teletherapy unit. The private Institute Goiano de Radioterapia performed radiotherapy, a medical treatment that uses beams of radiation to kill localized cancer cells. When the hospital relocated, it partially demolished its former building and took its cobalt-60 teletherapy unit, but it failed to properly dispose of its cesium-137 unit. The scrappers heard that the site might contain valuables. In one of the derelict treatment rooms, the men found a 1950s model Cesapan F-3000 designed by Italy’s Barazetti and Company. The sealed radioactive capsule was encased inside a heavy, rotating stainless steel and lead wheel. Assuming they could sell the metal, they carried the teletherapy unit’s rotating assembly home in a wheelbarrow, laid it under a mango tree in one of their yards, and disassembled it, releasing the cesium. Over the course of days, the men vomited, felt dizzy, and had diarrhea. When one of the men’s hands swelled up, he visited a doctor; the doctor attributed his symptoms to food allergies. It was the hand he’d gripped the machinery with. By then, they sold the parts to a neighboring junkyard. Exposed to the air in his garage, the junkyard owner noticed that the rice-sized particles glowed blue at night. The material mystified the man’s friends and family, so he gave them some. Five days later, many came down with gastrointestinal issues, including his wife. After his wife linked the symptoms to the material, she took it in a bag on a bus to a doctor, and authorities later secured the compromised sites and treated twenty infirm people in the hospital. Four weeks later, the junkyard owner’s wife and three other people died. The remaining sixteen survived. The International Atomic Energy Agency called the incident “one of the most serious radiological accidents ever to have occurred.” The house with the mango tree, and its topsoil, were destroyed.

The 1983 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster released huge amounts of cesium-137 into the Russian air and countryside. Winds carried it throughout Europe, with the greatest levels detected in Belarus, Austria, Ukraine, Sweden, and Finland. Domestic animals suffered mutations. Radiation appeared in alpine plants, and some European countries temporarily banned Russian imports.

The study of human knowledge is called epistemology. This branch of philosophy addresses the nature of knowledge: its dispersal, acquisition, and reliability. This includes the ways information spreads throughout the human population. Sometimes information stays were it begins. Most times it travels from its source, morphing and accruing or diluting as its radius expands. Epistemologists want to know how much we can trust information, and how we can know what we know.

During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the US military tested nuclear weapons at sites throughout the Marshall Islands in the North Pacific, in what’s called the Pacific Proving Grounds. These sub-surface detonations released cesium-137 and strontium-90 into the ocean, air, and soil, and small quantities of both radioisotopes still circulate in the Pacific.

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When sanma migrate from the tropics to Russia’s cold coastal waters, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese fisherman lay out their nets. Around Japan’s north island of Hokkaido, commercial saury season starts on August 15, and at the end of September for the other islands, but the meat is richest in fall. Between September and October, when the southbound fish pass back by Japan’s west coast, fat from their Russian feeding, they contain the highest oil content—up to 20 percent. During this peak period, the sauries caught along Japan’s Sanriku Coast, on the northeast corner of the main island of Honshu, are the most prized of all.

Sunriku lies to the north of Fukushima, but it’s also high on the north side, and its proximity to Fukushima makes me wonder if the ocean currents might somehow spread the poison the fish’s direction. I haven’t researched the currents on nautical maps, so I shouldn’t draw paranoid conclusions. But sometimes I picture the sanma swimming through blue toxic water on their way up the Japanese coast, and I wonder if I have a death wish.

Beyond currents, what if the migrating sanma enter the plume as they travel between the south and the north to feed, consuming nucleotides as they head toward the warmer waters of Southeast Asia? Maybe it doesn’t work that way. I’ve searched the web and books and can’t find details. Together, all this information doesn’t necessarily add up to anything, but the severity and weight of the information somehow feels conclusive. I still haven’t quit.

This summer, we bought a grill. Sanma was the second thing I cooked on it. I bought two frozen fish from a Japanese grocer and dusted them with salt. That night, the air filled with the thick marine scent of charred flesh. Fat crackled as it dripped into the flames. Our dog came sniffing around for scraps. This is how people have cooked sanma for hundreds of years.

At the kitchen table, I pinned the fish’s head with my finger, sliced off the tail and ran my chopsticks along the length of its belly, creating two fillets. With the fish splayed open, I picked out as many of the tiny, numerous ribs as I could and used my chopsticks to pluck nice thick bites right off the spine. Bones, heads, spines, fins─to me, the flavor and nutrition far outweigh the effort. I also ate the guts. I’d been wondering about their bitterness. How bitter was bitter? The sharp, mineraly bite of the dark organs filled my mouth, and I quickly washed it down with water.

The Japanese are an island nation defined by their relationship with the ocean. If I have to stop eating sanma, I only lose one dish and the idea of a healthy meal. If the Japanese have to stop eating it, they not only lose their food, they lose one connection to their history, and part of their identity with it.

*

On February 19, 2015, trace amounts of radioactive cesium-134 and cesium-137 were found in samples gathered from a dock in Ucluelet, a small town in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, on Vancouver Island, BC. The levels registered below Canada’s safe legal limit. A seawater sample taken about 745 miles west of Vancouver had already tested positive for cesium-134 in October, but this February sample was the first time Fukushima radiation had been identified on North America’s western shore. Ken Buesseler tested it.

Irritated that the US government had steadily reduced, rather than increased, its Fukushima monitoring and research efforts, Buesseler crowd-founded his own citizen-science monitoring agency in 2014, called the Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity (CMER). He installed four monitoring stations off the Oregon coast, and he began analyzing seawater samples that researchers and volunteers sent to his Massachusetts laboratory. In conjunction with a Canadian-funded program called InFORM, led by University of Victoria scientist Jay Cullen, CMER planned to add a dozen more stations along coastal British Columbia, with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography adding another ten. Anyone concerned about Fukushima and public safety knows that only fools trust the government, and Buesseler’s work provided qualitative evidence of the government’s disregard: an independent researcher was the first to discover Fukushima radiation on the West Coast, not a government agency.

The sample contained 1.4 becquerels of cesium-134 per cubic meter (Bq/m3), and around 5 Bq/m3 of cesium-137. A becquerel is a unit of radioactivity. For comparison, Japanese waters contained 50 million Bq/m3 following the meltdown, and they contained 1,000 Bq/m3 when I wrote this is 2015. Canada considers 10,000 Bq/m3 of cesium-137 the safe legal limit. “Even if the levels were twice as high [as 1.4 Bq/m3], you could still swim in the ocean for six hours every day for a year and receive a dose more than a thousand times less than a single dental X-ray,” Buesseler wrote. “While that’s not zero, that’s a very low risk.”

That seemed like good news. But I no longer know what to think.

I’m worried. My wife’s worried. Some of our friends are worried, though some of them are inclined to neurotic anxiety. Still, the threat is real. The other threat: the unknown. The human mind likes what talk shows call “closure.” It tries to make full circles. It prefers completed puzzles to pieces. We struggle to live with enduring mystery, because lingering questions physiologically disturb our minds. God, cosmic meaning, the afterlife, the “truth” about Fukushima─the unsettling effect of such knowledge gaps linger in the mind, circulating like nucleotides until we resolve them with answers from science or religion. The ocean still feels too big to instill confidence in me. The scientific method is objective, but it still requires belief; you have to trust the methods. I trust science. When it comes to discerning truth, we have devised no better system. But when it comes to disasters that involve top-heavy governments, I’m also a cynic.

*

“No one will die from Fukushima radiation,” Forbes wrote in March 2015, “there will be no increased cancer rates, the food supply is not contaminated, the ocean nearby is not contaminated, most of the people can move back into their homes, and most of the other nuclear plants in Japan can start up just fine.”

Eight months after that article, in October, a study linked Fukushima radiation with increased rates of thyroid cancer in local children. Of 370,000 kids tested in Fukushima Prefecture, 137 had confirmed or suspected cases of thyroid cancer─a rate twenty to fifty times higher than kids outside the Prefecture.

That same month, researchers Ken Buesseler and Jay Cullen announced that their monitoring efforts show that, despite the damage to Japan, North America’s West Coast remains unaffected by Fukushima radiation. As PBS reported:

“To be very direct about it…at the levels that we’re seeing, if one were to consume twenty kilos [over forty pounds] of salmon in a year, the dose that one experiences from consuming that fish is about 300-fold less significant than if you’re a pack-a-day cigarette smoker,” said Jay Cullen, an associate professor of ocean sciences at the University of Victoria, at a recent presentation of his latest data.”

Cullen and Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, found no trace of radioactivity from the meltdown of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactor in fish collected off British Columbia. Rather, the faint traces of radioactivity they found can be traced to weapons testing done over the Pacific in the 1960s and ’70s.

*

Over five years have passed since Fukushima, and here’s what I know for sure: I moved to Oregon in 2000. I’ve visited the coast countless times. The water still looks clean, the blue still true. It’s always been too cold for me to swim in without a full wetsuit. I like to dip my toes. Sometimes I get in to my knees. Sometimes I submerge my ankles. Mostly, I stand on the rough sand shivering, gazing at the horizon, and I let the frigid waves wash over my feet with consecutive lines of foam. It’s the same foam that washed away entire Japanese villages.

During the week, the fish keep sizzling in my skillet, and cans tower on my shelves. With the way I eat, I’ve put the ocean inside me. This water composes part of my cells. Its protein has become my protein, its trouble my trouble, while its little fish carry me toward a future I don’t yet know.

As forty-two-year-old Koriyama-resident Ritsuko Kamino told The Japan Times in 2015, “It’s better not to live in fear.” Eight months after the Fukushima meltdown, she left Koriyama and moved to the city of Naha nearly 1,300 miles to the south, on the Japanese island chain of Okinawa. Thanks to its clean environment and diet, Okinawa has one of the densest populations of centenarians in the world. As Kamino spoke to the reporter, she checked radiation levels on her own meter and advised her seven-year-old son not play outdoors.

*

Excerpted from Everything We Don’t Know by Aaron Gilbraith. Published by Curbside Splendor, Dec 6 2016. © 2019 by Aaron Gilbraith. All rights reserved.

Aaron Gilbreath

Aaron Gilbreath is a writer and editor at Longreads. He’s the author of This Is: Essays on Jazz, the personal essay collection Everything We Don’t Know, and the forthcoming Through the San Joaquin Valley: The Heart of California, and has written for Harper’s, Kenyon Review, and The Dublin Review.

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2 Comments on “Everything We Do Not Know

  1. I couldn’t get through this piece. I’m interested in the bottom line. Is Fukushima a disaster or about the heaviest ‘stress test’ a nuclear plant has been through which it came through very well given how few the clear deaths or other harms of radiation have been according go some.

    But it didn’t help me figure stuff out – it was all reportage, and didn’t give me the sense it was trying to converge as best it could on the truth.

  2. I can’t put much faith in someone’s ability to rationally evaluate scientific information when he can’t even distinguish “nucleotides” (the basic subunits of DNA & RNA) from “nuclides” (atoms having a specific nuclear makeup, ie, a certain number of protons & neutrons).
    In any case, this piece falls into a fascinating (and very common) cognitive trap of assuming that radioactivity is somehow a binary condition, “on” or “off”, present or absent, “contaminated” or “clean”. The truth is, we are exposed to ionizing radiation from nuclear disintegrations every day of our lives, & the greater part of it is from natural sources. Atomic energy, inclusive of Fukushima & Chernobyl, accounts for perhaps 1%, less than fertilizers (uranium naturally occurs in phosphate rock). We must take refuge in quantitative reasoning. The people involved in the Goiania incident were exposed to enormous doses of radiation, and at least one survived eight sieverts, which is almost twice the accepted lethal dose ; scarcely anybody has received (or ever will) as much as one-one-thousandth of that as a result of Fukushima.

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