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Radiation exposure: Why US is confident West Coast isn't in danger

Radiation exposure fears appear to have led to a run on iodine tablets in the US. But federal officals say that is an overreaction. They say weather patterns would disperse radiation from Japan to the point that it would present no health risk by the time it hits American shores.

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The answer to that question may be time, and distance. It would take days for prevailing winds to blow radioactive material from Japan to the US. Over that period, with that far to travel, rain and wind would disperse the radioactivity, according to the NRC.

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Using an atmospheric modeling tool developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, weather expert Jeff Masters has attempted to predict where any potential radioactive plume from the Fukushima Daiichi plant might go. The vast majority of times he runs the data, the plume stays over water for five to seven days prior to landfall. On his blog, “Weather Underground,” he writes that such a long time spent over the ocean means that the vast majority of radioactive particles would settle naturally or be washed out of the sky by precipitation.

“It is highly unlikely that any radiation capable of causing harm to people will be left in the atmosphere after seven days and 2000+ miles of travel distance,” Dr. Masters writes.

The Chernobyl disaster, which involved a release of much more radiation than has been the case so far in Japan, spread significant contamination about 1,000 miles, notes Masters.

Of course Chernobyl, in what is now Ukraine, occurred in the heart of Europe, so that contamination had serious health repercussions for nearby populations.

In his congressional testimony, Secretary Chu said he was up early Tuesday morning looking at atmospheric models produced by his department to see where radiation might travel. He added that the crisis in Japan will eventually help the US strengthen the safety of its own reactors.

The administration “is committed to learning from Japan’s experience,” he said.

Chu and other officials have said that the White House remains committed to the development of a diverse set of energy sources, including nuclear power. No new US reactors have come online since the Three Mile Island accident of 1979.

Pressed as to whether Japan’s troubles could stall nuclear power’s resurgence in the US, Chu said “I still feel it is probably premature to say anything other than, ‘We will learn from this all forms of energy do present risks.’ ”

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