The tragic 9.0 earthquake and tsunamis that hit Japan a few weeks ago are having lasting consequences not only for Japan, but also for the world.
One area of particular concern is the radiation that has leaked and is continuing to leak from the damaged nuclear reactors. At this point, the radiation has probably circled the globe and the leaks show no sign of stopping. Highly radioactive materials have contaminated the air, the ocean, and the soil. The contamination is at the crisis stage in Japan, already affecting the drinking water in Tokyo.
What are the implications for the rest of the world?
Here in Sacramento, there is an EPA radiation monitor that was one of the first away from Japan to detect radioactivity from the reactor disaster. In fact you can see daily updates of the radiation levels here in Sacramento and you can do the same in other cities. Also, just today there was a USA Today story about radiation from the Japanese disaster showing up in rainwater in Boston (picture above –source USA Today). Every story I have seen on the nuclear disaster says that the levels of radiation detectable away from Japan are thousands of times below any safety concern. In fact, the EPA website with the Sacramento radiation data says the same thing repeatedly. The favorite phrase is that the radiation spreading around the world is “at levels too low to affect human health”. This is simply not known to be true and the reality is far more complex.
The reality is that while the levels of radiation detectable here in America from the Japanese plants are low compared to the background radiation exposure we all get just from nature and while it is actually unclear if the radiation from Japan poses a sizable risk to any of us around the world, it is undeniable that any additional radiation exposure increases one’s risk for cancer and other health problems. In addition, the radiation spewing into the air and ocean from the Japanese reactors is a veritable radioactive stew containing a host of different isotopes, many of which do not occur in nature in any significant quantities. The potential risk from inhalation or consumption of these isotopes, even in small amounts, is unknown.
In today’s news stories the word “plutonium” is also starting to pop up more often and it appears, as many suspected all along, that plutonium has been released as well and is continuing to be released.
Making the situation all the more difficult to read, the information coming out from the utility running the nuclear plants in Japan has been conflicting and may not be reliable. There is a sense that the officials in Japan are significantly under-reporting the actual releases of radioactivity. Perhaps the biggest element causing uncertainty is that the situation is so dangerous and complex that no one really knows how much radiation is being released.
What is clear is that massive amounts of radioactive materials have been and sadly continue to be released into both the air and ocean. The release not only includes radioactive iodine that poses risk for thyroid cancer, but also isotopes that have almost an infinite (From a human lifetime perspective) half-life and also plutonium, which is extraordinarily dangerous.
Plutonium is an odd radioactive substance. The radiation it emits is of the type that cannot penetrate your skin from the outside, but if you inhale or ingest even a very tiny amount, it exposes the cells inside your body to extremely dangerous levels of radiation and can cause cancer. Some cells, such as stem cells, are especially sensitive to radiation and can transform into cancer stem cells. Beyond direct human exposure, there are likely enormous negative consequences for wildlife in Japan and in the ocean. The very high levels of radiation in the ocean off the coast of Japan will in the end be diluted by the sheer vastness of the ocean, but for now marine life is being exposed and the radiation will make its way up the food chain as well.
While the nuclear disaster in Japan is different in nature from Chernobyl, I think given the current information out there and still evolving situation at the Japanese reactions, it is too soon to say this situation is less dangerous than Chernobyl, which has been another media mantra.
If we are to continue to rely upon nuclear energy, have no illusions that in the future there will be more disasters of this kind and with every one, there will be more radioactive contamination of the world. Inside each of us will be a tiny bit more radiation or DNA damage from transient exposure. Depending on your proximity to the disaster you may have more or less, but the problem is truly a global one and have no illusions that you are completely insulated from the nuclear reactors that are far away from you.
I’m not trying to alarm anyone and frankly there is very little any of us can do to avoid exposure to the traces of radiation from the Japanese reactors just as we couldn’t protect ourselves from Chernobyl or the radiation from the U.S.’s own nuclear tests decades ago, but it is nonetheless important for people to understand the realities of the situation and be informed. The media reports on this situation are very misleading and overly simplistic.
An exception to this is a very interesting, helpful article in the NY Times on radiation expert Dr. David J. Brenner. What strikes me is that his assessments of the situation seem to be getting more and more serious. Dr. Brenner is clearly an expert on radiation and quite a scholar, but even he likely, by his own admission, underestimated the seriousness of the situation in Japan and the role for giving potassium iodine to the Japanese public to protect them radioactive iodine. Millions of people in Tokyo were undoubtedly exposed to radioactive iodine in their drinking water without being protected.
Also, the situation remains precarious at the reactors and may be deteriorating further, making it all the more important to understand the situation.