By Dr. Rick Johnson
Several Mono County residents have voiced concerns about Japan’s unfolding nuclear disaster. Let’s try to put all this into perspective, and take a look at what to do. Here’s the current situation as we know it:
There have been explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. A third reactor is reportedly at risk of partial meltdown, with evidence that the metal casings of some fuel rods have been damaged, and rods exposed.
Very limited amounts of radiation have been detected in the atmosphere from the explosions, and the continued deliberate release of steam to reduce pressure inside the reactor. There has been no leak of radioactive material.
Attempts to cool the reactors with sea water continue. This is essential to prevent further explosions and meltdown from overheating.
Excess radiation in the atmosphere has been detected as far away as 100 miles from the plant, comparable to one month of background radiation for each hour of exposure. The levels near the plant last Sunday were equivalent to one chest x-ray per hour. We are all constantly exposed to background radiation. In fact, those of us who fly, and choose to live at high altitude have made the choice to expose ourselves to higher background levels of radiation from the ground, soil and sun.
A “China Syndrome” or Chernobyl type event is virtually impossible. The Chernobyl event in 1986 was caused by horrendous design flaws in the nuclear plant, compounded by a cascading series of human errors. The plant was running at many times its normal capacity at the time of the disaster, when an explosion spewed radioactive material over a large area, immediately killing 32 plant workers and fire fighters, and eventually killing about 4,000 from thyroid cancer. By contrast, in Japan, the reactors were shut down by the earthquake, averting what could well have been an even worse catastrophe.
This event is more comparable to the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. Even after 32 years, there is still no evidence of increased cancer or genetic defects.
At the federal level, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy and other agencies monitor radioactive releases and manage a Federal Radiological Monitoring and Assessment Center. So far, it appears that weather has blown much of the radiation from the Fukushima reactors out to sea. The U.S. West Coast is not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity.
The State Dose Assessment Center is managed by the California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA) and the California Department of Public Health’s Nuclear Emergency Response Program. Both employ health physicists with years of experience in the nuclear world dating back to the 1940s.
Misconceptions and Myths:
“We should all have KI pills.” The KI stands for potassium iodide, and the pills are distributed to individuals who reside within a 10-mile radius of nuclear power plants. This includes the two active plants in California in Orange and San Luis Obispo counties.
The military has issued such pills to helicopter crews engaged in flying over the nuclear facilities in Japan, but so far U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin said she doesn’t think there will be a need for them here. A scenario in which Eastern Sierra residents would need KI is also beyond my wildest imagination.
“We need to stay inside.” This would be the recommendation if there was radioactive fallout. Some of you may remember shelters from the 1950s. It is not anticipated any recommendations to change your normal daily activities will be forthcoming.
“A meltdown would put us at risk.” Partially true. A “meltdown” would be catastrophic for Japan, but would not affect us. In a meltdown, the temperature would rise such that the reactor core would melt and fall into the ground, and be contained there.
“Explosions have occurred, putting us at risk from fallout.” Yes, explosions have occurred, but mainly hydrogen gas explosions outside of the reactor core, within the containment buildings. there should be not. Even if there is a massive release of radioactive material into the atmosphere, our distance — thousands of miles — from the blast would serve to protect us. Chernobyl fallout reached into Russia, and as far away as France, but neither are as far from Russia as we are from Japan.
What should we be doing? Stay up to date on the latest world news reports, either on TV or online. California Public Health has established a public information response line at 916.341.3947. And if you haven’t yet, make an earthquake plan. More official information is posted as it becomes available at: www.cdph.ca.gov and www.bepreparedcalifornia.ca.gov.
Dr. Rick Johnson currently serves as Mono County’s Public Health Officer.