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Officials Are "Underestimating the Seriousness of the Problem" with Japan's Nuclear Reactors

Japan raised the nuclear alert level from a four to a five, on par with Three Mile Island. This decision has shocked many nuclear experts who thought it should be higher.

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People off the site, we’ve seen figures around 170 microsieverts per hour at about 30 kilometers. Now, microsieverts, it’s a much smaller figure, but those people are potentially there for quite a long time. And if they were outside, which hopefully they’re not, they would be getting the average yearly dose in about a day or less, or maybe 10 hours or something like that. So, just think of that. In one day, you can get your average [yearly] dose of radiation if you go out 30 kilometers from this site.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re also joined by Ira Helfand of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Your assessment of the talk about the dangers of the radiation in the exclusion zone to the workers and the potential for other areas outside the exclusion zone.

IRA HELFAND: Yeah, I mean, there are basically two distinct dangers that we’re faced with a reactor accident of this sort. One is the levels of very high radiation, which are primarily confined to the area right around the plant, at least at this point. And these are doses which, if you get up to a full sievert, will cause, as Philip was just explaining, radiation sickness. This is primarily a concern for people working in the plant, the 180-some-odd workers who have stayed behind there to try to bring this situation under control. If there was a much larger release, this conceivably could be a problem further out, but hopefully would not go out beyond the evacuation zone.

I think the danger, though, that we need to focus on, because it’s the one that affects the largest numbers of people, is the danger posed by low-level radiation and the possibility of cancer and other chronic illnesses being caused down the road from this episode. The radioactive material coming out of the plant is made up of about 200 different radioactive isotopes, and particles of these radioactive materials can travel great distances with the wind if they are dispersed into the air. We’re picking up radiation as—you know, elevated levels of radiation in Tokyo and in other places at some remove. At this point, those levels are still quite low. And while it is important to emphasize that there is no safe level of radiation—any radiation exposure increases your risk of cancer—the levels that people are being exposed to at this point remain quite low, if you get away from the plant itself, and will have very low health effects.

If there’s a larger release from this plant—and the situation there is still completely out of control—that could change very dramatically, and we could end up with a situation, as occurred at Chernobyl, where significant amounts of these radioactive isotopes get deposited downwind, contaminating populations, exposing them to an increased risk of cancer. And the best estimate that I’ve seen is that there will be approximately 250,000 excess cancer deaths, ultimately, as a result of the Chernobyl accident. We could have the same kind of wide deposition of radioactive materials if there’s a much larger release than has occurred so far.

In addition, large areas of ground can become so contaminated that people can’t use these areas for extended periods of time. And again, the Chernobyl experience, there were areas up to 100 miles downwind from the plant that had to be evacuated and which remain unsafe for human use today.

So, these two distinct differences—these two distinct dangers: the high doses of radiation affecting primarily people right around the plant at this point and then the potential for a fairly broad distribution of low-level radiation, which could be quite, quite destructive from a public health point of view.

 
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