Fukushima nuclear-power disaster

The Fukushima I nuclear power plant after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

If you haven’t been keeping up with recent news, try Googling “Fukushima nuclear disaster.” The news from last year’s nuclear-power meltdown gets worse by the day. The radiation from three of the five units is still leaking. Robots can’t get near because their microchips fry. There’s a chance another unit may melt down. There’s even worry that there could be a chain-reaction event affecting all the units and leading to as much as ten times the radiation release of Chernobyl.

Poor Tokyo. Poor Japan. And what about us here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.? Knowing nuclear-radiation facts helps us know what to do for this, or any other nuclear-power disaster.

Fact #1: You must be exposed to the direct energy of radiation for it to harm you. This may seem obvious, but it’s often overlooked. Even in a worst-case scenario with Fukushima, the radiation from the reactors will only travel a few hundred, maybe a few thousand, feet. Say some of the material somehow washes up on our West Coast shore. It’s not going to be zapping people unless they’re really close by.

What to Do: For Fukushima, the U.S. is way too far from it to worry about direct exposure.

Fact #2: With any sort of blast, a multitude of radioactive particles spray in all directions. These fallout particles land on soil, in trees, rivers, oceans—everywhere for many miles. They spray into the upper atmosphere where they attach to dust. They ride wind currents. Some eventually fall with gravity, some come down in rain, and some just stay up there indefinitely. The areas closest to the blast get the most fallout, so there’s less and less the farther it has to travel.

What to Do: If you’re within a couple hundred miles of a nuclear-power disaster you should leave the area or get inside so the fallout doesn’t land on you. For Fukushima, you can monitor the fallout detected in your local air at one of the government websites or the independent site Radiation Network, run by volunteers. If the level were to get into the danger zone, you would be advised to stay inside until it decreased and consider taking potassium iodide, which I write about in my next post.

Fact #3: Fallout can contaminate our food and water. It can actually get inside plants during the growing process. Animals and fish ingest the contaminated plants and water.

What to Do: Of course, wash everything well. Right now, the food from Japan is supposedly being monitored closely. The grains from around Fukushima have been stored, sealed, and designated contaminated and inedible.

Fact #4: Nuclear radiation is not an automatic death sentence. All of us get radiation every day from the sun and minerals. Unless we get a whopping dose as described in fact #1, cancers and birth defects seem to be our biggest risk.

What to do: Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables filled with cancer-fighting antioxidants. Cancers take a long time to develop. Our bodies are good fighters with many weapons.

Fact #5: Many Nagasaki and Hiroshima residents who were even a mile or less away from the ground-zero atomic blasts lived long lives. Yes, their risk for cancer and other deaths is way higher than the general population, but remember, they got quite a dose, and the majority lived an average lifespan.

Fact #6: Nuclear power plants will never be one hundred percent safe.

What to Do: That’s up to us. Surely we need serious debate before building more nuclear power plants. And we need to strictly keep up maintenance on the ones we have. And for heaven’s sake, we shouldn’t even think of building one anywhere close to natural-disaster zones.

What’s your opinion?


Photo by Digital Globe (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.