During the Cold War in 1986, terrified Berkeley residents passed the Nuclear Free Act which declared the city of Berkeley to be a nuclear free zone, prohibiting the creation of nuclear materials within the city borders, or any association with nuclear energy. While the repeal of this controversial act is under current discussion, with residents labeling it as anachronistic and a hindrance to innovation, its continued existence demonstrates a history of the Bay Area’s distrustful, and often antagonistic, relationship with radiation.
Earlier last month, concerned residents expressed unease over the low-flying helicopters grazing Bay Area skies. Is this the apocalypse? pondered two College Prep students whose opinions I asked. Residents’ curiosity and anxiety heightened when it was discovered that they were sent by the combined forces of the Department of Homeland Security, the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, and the Department of Energy, on what was succinctly dubbed the “Aerial Radiological Survey.” The official explanation for the gridded sweeps expressed that they were doing routine testing on their radiation and nuclear material detection technology.
However, students and parents alike feared that the tests were being conducted because the radiation danger in the Bay Area and the West Coast had become too severe to ignore. Murmurings overheard in a Berkeley BART station suggest genuine Bay Arean fear over the radiation. Thier evidence includes everything from radioactive clouds drifting across the Pacific from Japan to sightings of pods of radioactive bluefin tuna, possible catches for unknowing California fishermen.
Fear of radiation is longstanding. Radiation is the invisible, silent killer that lurks in corners and smartphones and bananas, just waiting to strike. The question remains: what will happen if we eat contaminated fish? Will we get cancer? Will our unborn children grow scales or extra eyes or the ability to fly? Should we dust off the old bomb shelter in the backyard and prepare for the next 10,000 years of nuclear winter with only a stuffed bear and canned beans for company? People fear what they don’t know, but fortunately, radiation isn’t as large a threat to the Bay Area as is thought. So, while there has been an increase of radiation found in that specific species of fish, the radiation levels are still well below accepted limits for seafood and the environment in general.
Even so, these tests follow several recent radiation scares that have metaphorically energized the Bay Area’s electrons (or other radiation pun). In the beginning of 2011, a massive tsunami following the Tōhoku earthquake in Japan caused the Fukushima power plant to go into meltdown. As huge amounts of radiation spilled into the Pacific Ocean, experts estimated the radiation’s arrival on the West coast of the United States in early 2014. The expected radiation spike in U.S. waters did occur, causing frenzied panic, with sources prophesying the massive die off of all sea-life, and the implied end of all civilization . Researchers were quick to try to appease the worried Californians, saying that this jump was to be expected and that radiation levels were still way below the limit of safe drinking water. In fact, the amount of radiation the coast received was 10 million times weaker than the level present in Japan.
The Bay Area has nothing to fear from radiation right now; there’s no need to start drafting a treaty of surrender to the voracious mutant armies.