Fukushima Fallout: It's No Chernobyl, We Hope!

Fukushima Fallout: It's No Chernobyl, We Hope!

Fukushima Fallout: It's No Chernobyl, We Hope!

Time will tell how the long term effects of Fukushima will ‘fall out’. The stark reality is what occurred in Japan could happen anywhere! So, be ready for the next one

     
Fukushima Fallout: It's No Chernobyl, We Hope!
image by:

We are all aware of the dangers of radiation exposure. In fact, we are constantly being bombarded by radioactivity.

Worldwide radioactive fallout from the Fukushima nuclear accident is probably miniscule to natural background radiation from cosmic and radon, and pales in comparison to diagnostic imaging studies. So additional exposure from nuclear fallout probably wouldn’t make much of a difference! But do we really know the whole story? Or are we just being paranoid?

When the explosion in Chernobyl occurred 25 years ago in the former Soviet Union, the rest of the world was blissfully unaware. The accident only came to light two days later when Swedish nuclear workers measured abnormally high radiation levels in their clothes but could not find any leak in their own plant. The source was the fallout from Chernobyl which travelled more than 1000 kilometers. In fact, the whole of Europe was contaminated with Cesium 137.

In the case of the Fukushima accident on March 11, 2011, the world was watching and braced itself for the fallout. In Europe and North America, monitoring stations detected traces of radio-nuclides in food and drinking water but government agencies plus the United Nations were consistent and unanimous in saying there was no ‘immediate’ health risks. The New York Times stated that the fear of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear accident was “unwarranted” and actually “overblown".1

Until beginning of March 2011, the Chernobyl accident was considered as the worst nuclear accident in history, rated highest (7) on the 8-point (0 = no safety significance, 7 = major accident) International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES).

The rating of Fukushima started with 3, then gradually up rated to 4, 5, then 6. Eventually, the Japanese nuclear agency raised the rating to 7 “provisionally.” Rating 7 is the most serious category, considered a major accident and means “release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures".2,3

Despite an INES rating of 7, comparing Fukushima with Chernobyl is not easy because of the paucity of data released to the public and the scientific community. 

Here’s what National Public Radio (NPR) says:

Amount of radioactive material: Far more radiation was released at Chernobyl. So far, Fukushima Dai-ichi has released about one-tenth of the amount of radioactive material that escaped Chernobyl, according to an official from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Explosion: An entire reactor exploded in Chernobyl resulting in a massive fire. The Fukushima plant had several small explosions and fires.

Containment: The reactor in Chernobyl was not surrounded by any containment structure, so radiation escaped freely. The Fukushima reactor had some structural deficits but the radioactive cores in the reactors were largely protected.

Spread and fallout: The fires and radioactive plume after the Chernobyl explosion resulted in radioactive dispersal and fallout in the immediate area and spread over a wide geographical area in the European continent. Fukushima being close to the sea coast, the radioactive material was supposedly carried out to sea by winds, away from highly populated areas. However, the nuclear cloud is still moving and dispersing and may have reached other continents.

Evacuation and protection of the local population: The people in the vicinity of Chernobyl were reported not warned or informed and evacuations were organized much, much later. There were reports of rain seeding to force the nuclear cloud to fall out locally, with no consideration for the local population. The evacuation in the Fukushima area was more immediate and rapid.

Death toll: The immediate death toll of Chernobyl was 30. No deaths due to radiation exposure have so far been reported during the Fukushima accident.4

The world is divided about the use of nuclear power. 

Some people think Fukushima might be the start of the demise of nuclear power generation. In Germany, a recent election catapulted the previously minority Green Party as a majority power to be reckoned with, what many referred to as the “Fukushima effect.” However, the effect was not evident in Canada where the conservatives had a big victory. Many Western European countries are getting wary of nuclear power but less in Sweden, ironically a country closely linked to the Chernobyl disaster.

The well-respected environmental scientist Jesse H. Ausubel believes, along with other known opinion leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama, that despite the recent setbacks, nuclear power is still  the “ultimate power source.” Unfortunately, there is some truth to this because no other source of energy can sufficiently support our increasing needs now or in the future. Fossil fuels are almost depleted and highly polluting. Renewable “clean” energy such as solar, wind and hydropower is simply not enough.5,6

So, what's Nuclear Fallout?

Experts at the University of Michigan define nuclear fallout as consisting of “particles of matter in the air made radioactive from a nuclear explosion. Some of these particles fall in the immediate area and some get blown by upper winds many thousands of miles. Eventually they fall to the earth. This is called fallout".7

Several things determine the magnitude of the fallout and how far it can travel, namely:

  • Magnitude of the explosion
  • Altitude of the explosion
  • Weather conditions
  • Rainfall

Altitude is of prime importance. If the explosion is in the air where it is unable to suck dirt particles from the ground then the particles are lighter and take much longer to fallout. If the blast is able to get particles from the ground then they fall much quicker in a more immediate area. In other words, an air explosion, called an air burst, results in less and slower fallout but has wider geographical effect. Less known is a water explosion. Again fallout would depend whether the explosion occurs close to the water surface or deep down.

And, what's in that Nuclear Cloud?

Plutonium - When we think of nuclear plants, we usually think of plutonium. Plutonium is highly toxic and has a long half-life up to 26,000 years. However plutonium is not as volatile as other radioactive isotopes, thus may actually present less of a threat in areas away from Fukushima. Plutonium has been detected in the soil and waters near the plant.8

Iodine 131 - Two volatile radioactive elements are leaking out of the Fukushima nuclear plant and one of them is iodine131. As of 10th April, the IAEA reported the presence of iodine 131 in 7 prefectures at levels ranging from 6.3 to 920 Bq/m2.

However, the radioactive isotopes seem to be spreading fast. As of 11 April, 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released data indicating the presence of iodine 131 in the Philadelphia drinking water supply. Monitoring stations in the US and Canada estimate a release of 1.2 to 1.3 × 1017 becquerels of iodine 131 per day.9,10

The French NGO CRIIRAD has detected iodine in rainwater in France whereas the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) detected it in milk in the European continent.11

Cesium 137 - Another volatile substance in the fallout is cesium137. The IAEA reported that Cesium 137 was detected in 6 prefectures at levels of 9 to 800 Bq/m2 on 10 April 2011. The daily amount of Cesium 137 released in Fukushima is about 60% of what was released in Chernobyl, approximately 5 × 1015 becquerels per day.

Xenon 133 - The radioisotope Xenon 133 was also detected in many countries outside Japan, including Korea, and California. The EPA declared that the contamination was too low to cause any harm.12

Alright, give us the Health implications.

We are all well aware of what happens from direct exposureto radiationfor those who are unfortunately nearby or at a nuclear accident. Villages in the vicinity of the Fukushima plant have already been evacuated upwards to 20K and more, and several workers in the Fukushima plant apparently suffered from acute radiation exposure.

Fukushima has already discharged large amounts of radioactive substances into the air and the ocean, and may still be. This radioactive discharge can have large-scale and long-term consequences on the flora and fauna in the area, as well as sea life and is known ‘bioaccumulation’ in the food chain. As an example, radioactive elements in the rain gets into the grass, are eaten by cows which produce milk contaminated with radioactive iodine.13

Contamination with radioactive iodine131 has already been reported in the water supplies in Tokyo and surrounding areas and has also been detected in 11 different vegetables grown in the area. And on a global scale the EPA has detected low levels of Iodine 131 and Cesium in some milk samples produced in the U.S. However, the FDA claims these levels are “extremely” low and should not be a cause for concern. As a result people worldwide including North America, Europe and Asia are concerned not only about imports from Japan but also about their own locally grown products contaminated by the ever-spreading fallout.

The health hazards of ingestion of contaminated food and drinks and the breathing of contaminated air - radioactive dust may be similar to 'chronic radiation' exposure. Chronic exposure can result in slow-acting but long-term effects such as damage or alteration of the DNA. The effects result in a wide range of chronic conditions because tissues and organs differ in their susceptibility to radiation. Studies that followed up those who survive the A-bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II reported significantly elevated risk for many types of cancers including blood cancers (e.g. leukemia) bladder, breast, colon, esophagus, liver, lung, multiple myeloma, ovarian, and stomach cancers.

Again, setting the threshold for chronic exposure is difficult. An estimated exposure to 100 mrems/year can translate into a 1 in 267 lifetime risk of fatal cancer. In addition, chronic exposure can cause genetic effects especially on the unborn child and the very young. Possible genetic effects of radiation exposure include “increased still births, congenital abnormalities, infant mortality, childhood mortality, and decreased birth weight".14

Nevertheless up to now, the consensus by the medical experts suggests that the amount of radioactive fallout excluding Japan is miniscule in comparison to natural background radiation from cosmic and radon, and pales in comparison to diagnostic imaging studies.

So, who's watching out for us?

There are government agencies watching and monitoring radiation, right? After all, every country using nuclear power sources has a nuclear agency to keep watch, ensure safety and inform the public. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union agency did not do their job at Chernobyl and many people feel that current day agencies are not doing theirs, too. There have even been complaints about evasion, downplaying and cover ups. So, who are they?

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). IAEA is the nuclear watchdog of the United Nations.The IAEA is the world's center of cooperation in the nuclear field. It was set up as the world´s "Atoms for Peace" organization in 1957 within the United Nations family. The Agency works with its Member States and multiple partners worldwide to promote safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies.

The IAEA maintains a Fukushima Nuclear Accident Log that is regularly updated. When the Fukushima accident occurred last March, IAEA came under fire for failing to ensure the security of the Japanese plants. The agency was accused of letting power companies “cut corners” and for failing to “learn from the lessons of Chernobyl.” Despite its high profile, IAEA has no mandate and power to implement. Compliance of member states to nuclear safety standards is largely voluntary. A statement from the agency said “the agency can facilitate the creation of a standard but cannot enforce that standard".15,16

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In the U.S. the primary watchdog is the NRC which works together with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “NRC was created as an independent agency by Congress in 1974 to enable the nation to safely use radioactive materials for beneficial civilian purposes while ensuring that people and the environment are protected. The NRC regulates commercial nuclear power plants and other uses of nuclear materials, such as in nuclear medicine, through licensing, inspection and enforcement of its requirements.” NRC is responsible for the safety standards of the 104 operating nuclear plants in the United States.

NRC’s statement on Fukushima as of April 13: “Japan's nuclear crisis appears to be "static" but not yet stable as the damaged reactors still need to be cooled." NRC’s biggest stumble was the Three Mile Island accident which occurred at a power plant near Middletown, Pa, on March 28, 1979. It was considered as the most serious nuclear power plant accident in U.S. history. The accident was rated as 5 on the INES scale.17

RadNet – U.S. EPA. The RadNet network, which has stations in each State, has been used to track environmental releases of radioactivity from nuclear weapons tests and nuclear accidents. Future uses of this network might include monitoring waste disposal and radioactive cleanup sites. RadNet also documents the status and trends of environmental radioactivity;  this data is published online in a quarterly report entitled Environmental Radiation Data.

FDA. According to the FDA, it is closely screening food products coming from Japan. Especially affected are the “importation of all milk and milk products and fresh vegetables and fruits produced or manufactured from the four Japanese prefectures of Fukushima.” Of greatest concern are the following radionuclides for which the FDA is testing in food products:Iodine-131, Cesium-134, Cesium-137, Strontium-90, Ruthenium-103 and Ruthenium-106.18

Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). CNSC is watching over 5 nuclear power stations in Canada. Fukushima was big and the whole world paid attention. However, what many people are not aware of is that many “small” nuclear explosions all over the world and people rarely hear about it.

Did you know, for example that on March 17, 2011, at the height of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, thousands of liters of radioactive water leaked into Lake Ontario! According to a report in Phys.org, 73,000 liters or 19,280 gallons of water were released into one of the great Lakes by the Pickering Nuclear Power Station. The leak was due to a faulty pump and occurred 35 kilometers from Toronto, the country’s largest city. Official statement from the power company said that "The event was a low level regulatory event with only negligible effect to the environment and no public health implications" and had “no impact to quality of drinking water".19

The CNSC site continuously gives updates on Fukushima but barely mentioned the problem at its doorstep. CNSC’s statement on the Pickering incident only appeared on 26 March: Pickering Nuclear's Unit 1 reactor experienced a brief partial loss of power while performing start up activities. Standby systems automatically restored the power, with no impact on employee, public or equipment safety.20

In Europe, most countries have their own nuclear agency. In addition, there is the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) composed of senior officials from the national nuclear safety, radioactive waste safety or radiation protection regulatory authorities from all 27 Member States in the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM).

OK, who is watching the government agencies?

There are several Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) or so-called independent watchdogs that think and report differently. Here are some sources you should check out.

The Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Treaty Organization. The CTBTO concerns itself with the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty but has provided useful info on the Fukushima fallout. Part of the CTBTO is the International Monitoring System (IMS), which consists of several radionuclide monitoring stations scattered all over the globe. There are currently 80 operational stations and many have already submitted data a few days after the Fukushima accident. Here’s what the IMS found out: Initial detections of radioactive materials were made on 12 March at the Takasaki monitoring station in Japan just 250 km away from the troubled power plant. The dispersion of the radioactive isotopes could then be followed to eastern Russia on 14 March and to the west coast of the United States two days later.21

Nine days after the accident, the radioactive cloud had crossed Northern America. Three days later when a station in Iceland picked up radioactive materials, it was clear that the cloud had reached Europe. By day 15, traces from the accident in Fukushima were detectable all across the northern hemisphere. For the first four weeks, the radioactive materials remained confined to the northern hemisphere, with the equator initially acting as a dividing line between the northern and southern air masses. As of 13 April, radioactivity had spread to the southern hemisphere of the Asia-Pacific region and had been detected at stations located for example in Australia, Fiji, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.

WeatherOnline shows the potential cloud spread of radioactive Cesium 137, Xenon 133 and Iodine 131 using dispersion models and taking into account weather conditions. The site shows prediction maps for Japan and the surrounding areas, the US, and the Northern Hemisphere as a whole.

Greenpeace continues to actively monitor the situation in Fukushima and was the first to rate it as 7 on the INES scale.22

Commission de Recherche et d’Information Independantes sur la Radioactivite Association Francaise (CRIIRAD) is demanding more transparency on airborne radioactivity.

Other Internet sites that continue to comment on Fukushima include Food and Water Watch and Prison Planet.

How can we hopefully minimize our radiation exposure now and in the future?

Stay informed. Avoiding consumption of potentially contaminated water and food is of prime importance. Most of the major watchdog agencies including the NGO’s have updates and guidances to help protect consumers from contaminated food and water.

Potassium Iodide (KI) is worth talking about. KI is part of the emergency planning regulations for all nuclear agencies worldwide.  As an example in the United States the pills have been provided to states with nuclear power plants, enabling (but not requiring) them to distribute the pills to residents within 10 miles of a plant.23

Since the Fukushima accident, there was a surge in the demand for KI pills which supposedly can help counteract effects of radioactive iodine. Those who were directly exposed in Fukushima were given these pills including many people as far away as Tokyo. However, none of the world’s regulatory entities has recommended that the public should start taking KI as prophylaxis against iodine 131.24

According to a statement from Richard T. Kloos, MD, Chief Operating Officer of the American Thyroid Association (ATA): “We would like the American public to be knowledgeable and informed, but now is not the time for Americans to panic. I don't think the American public is at any risk, and I don't think they should be taking any prophylaxis unless a reliable source tells them to do so".25

There are currently three approved KI pills on the market and they are all available without prescription.

How does KI work?  KI is used to saturate the thyroid gland with iodine so that radioactive iodine inhaled or ingested will not be retained by the gland.  According to the US FDA: “When administered at the recommended dose, KI is effective in reducing the risk of thyroid cancer in people at risk for inhalation or ingestion of radioactive iodine. KI floods the thyroid with non-radioactive iodine and prevents the uptake of the radioactive molecules. Potassium iodide works only to prevent the thyroid from uptaking radioactive iodine. It is not a general radioprotective agent.”

What about Nutrition? - Seaweed soups including miso and iodine supplements such as kelp have been touted in the media but they do not have enough iodine to protect one during a radioactive iodine crisis. However there are some recent studies, although small, that suggest diets high in antioxidants can decrease DNA damage from cosmic radiation and imaging studies such as CT’s.

And Surgical masks - Seems like almost everyone in Tokyo is wearing a simple surgical mask to mitigate inhaling radioactive dust. Robert Kelly, a nuclear engineer and former contractor to the U.S. Energy Department implies that masks may be of some benefit when he said “the masks would stop larger dust-sized particles.” And Elena N. Bodnar, director of the Trauma Risk Management Research Institute is quoted as saying, “Ideally, people should wear a mask, but even breathing through a wet handkerchief or cloth will help to serve the purpose of substantially lowering inhalation of radioactive airborne particles when no specialized masks are available”.  Sounds like the simple mask may help!

The Bottom Line

The Japanese are a resilient society and if anyone can survive this ‘triple catastrophe’ no one is better than Japan. The stark reality is what occurred in Japan could happen anywhere! The take home message is be vigilant, stay informed and be ready for the next one. And don’t let the Internet scare you or depend solely on government agencies. Time will tell how the long term effects of Fukushima will ‘fall out’.

Published May 31, 2011, updated July 7, 2012

 

Photo By:  Global2000


 References

  1. Broad W, Drumbeat of Nuclear Fallout Fear Doesn’t Resound With Experts, New York Times 02 May 2011
  2. Japan Raises Nuclear Crisis to Same Level as Chernobyl, CNBC 12 April 2011.
  3. Shaikh T, Is Fukushima as bad as Chernobyl?  CNN 12 April 2011
  4. Barclay E, Fukushima Vs. Chernobyl: Still Not Equal, National Public Radio. 12 April 2011
  5. Obama defends nuclear energy, AP 16 March 2011
  6. Wade N, A Passion for Nature, and Really Long Lists, New York Times 25 April 2011
  7. Fallout. University of Michigan
  8. Karlinsky N and Tanglao L, Japan Nuclear Crisis: Plutonium Leaks From Fukushima Plant, ABC News 29 March 2011
  9. Subar Z, EPA: Northwest Philly Treatment Plant's Water Has Highest Tested Levels of Radioactive Iodine in US, Mt.AiryPatch 11 April 2011.
  10. MacKenzie D. Fukushima radioactive fallout nears Chernobyl levels, 24 March 2011. New Scientist.
  11. Radiation risks from Fukushima 'no longer negligible,  EurActiv.com 11 April 2011
  12. Tracy T, Radioactive Isotope Detected in California, Wall Street Journal. 18 March 2011
  13. Discharge of low level radioactive accumulated water in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station to the sea, Press release, TEPCO News 04 April 2011
  14. Chronological Fact Sheet On March 2011 Crisis At Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, 7 December 2011
  15. International Atomic Energy Agency
  16. Borger J. UN's nuclear watchdog IAEA under fire over response to Japanese disaster, 15 March 2011
  17. Fukushima crisis "static" but not stable - U.S. NRC, Reuters 13 April 2011
  18. Radiation Safety, Public Health Focus, FDA  June 21, 2012
  19. Canadian nuclear plant 'leaked radioactive water, Physorg.com 17 March 2011
  20. Latest News, Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission
  21. Fukushima-related measurements by the CTBTO, CTBTO 13 April 2011.
  22. Hirsch, H. Fukushima – INES scale rating, Greenpeace Report, 23 March 2011
  23. Use of Potassium Iodide, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 16 March 2011
  24. Pollack A,  Anxiety Over Radiation Drives a Sales Surge for a Drug Against Thyroid Cancer, The New York Times, 15 March 2011
  25. Radioactive Fallout from the 2011 Japan Nuclear Plant Accident and Some Recommended Precautions and Countermeasures, The World of Food Science

Related Videos

The Latest from Insider

Alkaline Water: Healthy Elixir?e

Alkaline Water: Healthy Elixir?

Do alkaline water's health claims hold water or do the benefits simply favor the maker over the drinker?

Menopause, 'Freshman 20' Againe

Menopause, 'Freshman 20' Again

While putting periods, cramps and PMS behind you may be a bonus, new challenges take their place. Beyond the hot flashes, insomnia, and irritability, you have another issue to consider – a thickening middle

Painkillers - The Drugging of GenRxe

Painkillers - The Drugging of GenRx

Prescription drugs bring relief from illness and pain but they come with a price...drug dependence and even death. Can we turn it around?

Alkaline Water: Healthy Elixir?e

Alkaline Water: Healthy Elixir?

Do alkaline water's health claims hold water or do the benefits simply favor the maker over the drinker?

Menopause, 'Freshman 20' Againe

Menopause, 'Freshman 20' Again

While putting periods, cramps and PMS behind you may be a bonus, new challenges take their place. Beyond the hot flashes, insomnia, and irritability, you have another issue to consider – a thickening middle

Painkillers - The Drugging of GenRxe

Painkillers - The Drugging of GenRx

Prescription drugs bring relief from illness and pain but they come with a price...drug dependence and even death. Can we turn it around?

Flu, The Smart Viruse

Flu, The Smart Virus

Flu vaccinations have become an annual event in most developed countries, yet the flu continues to affect tens of millions of people each year and causes 250,000 to 500,000 deaths worldwide. So, what's wrong? Is the flu virus smarter than us?

Alkaline Water: Healthy Elixir?e

Alkaline Water: Healthy Elixir?

Do alkaline water's health claims hold water or do the benefits simply favor the maker over the drinker?

Menopause, 'Freshman 20' Againe

Menopause, 'Freshman 20' Again

While putting periods, cramps and PMS behind you may be a bonus, new challenges take their place. Beyond the hot flashes, insomnia, and irritability, you have another issue to consider – a thickening middle

Painkillers - The Drugging of GenRxe

Painkillers - The Drugging of GenRx

Prescription drugs bring relief from illness and pain but they come with a price...drug dependence and even death. Can we turn it around?

Flu, The Smart Viruse

Flu, The Smart Virus

Flu vaccinations have become an annual event in most developed countries, yet the flu continues to affect tens of millions of people each year and causes 250,000 to 500,000 deaths worldwide. So, what's wrong? Is the flu virus smarter than us?

Stay Connected

©2017 | HealthWorldNet, Inc. | 106717

Last Updated : Wednesday, September 27, 2017