Radiation exposure: How big is the threat in Japan?
Radiation exposure: Adding to the monumental losses after a Japanese earthquake and tsunami, problems at four nuclear reactors have residents near and far concerned about radiation exposure.
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One of the spent-fuel pools where the used radioactive rods are normally cooled has already released steam. The condition of the pools and their cooling systems after the hydrogen explosions are unknown and experts say that if the pools have been compromised, they could release more radiation than a reactor meltdown. The pools have far more radioactivity than the reactors, and do not have the protection of a containment building. Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear engineer and president of the anti-nuclear power Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, says "damaged reactors are less likely to spread the same vast amounts of radiation that Chernobyl did, but a spent-fuel pool fire could very well produce damage similar to or even greater than Chernobyl."Skip to next paragraph
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Another radiation concern is the dangerous amount of plutonium-based mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) that reactor 3 has. Dr. Edwin Lyman, a physicist with UCS, adds that the plutonium particles found in MOX are far more harmful than other emitted elements. With a reported three yards of a MOX fuel rod exposed in one of the reactors, these plutonium particles may be mixing with escaping gasses.
But some experts dispute the likelihood of a Chernobyl repeat. And Japan's nuclear safety agency refutes any Chernobyl comparison by saying there is "absolutely no possibility of a Chernobyl" meltdown event at Fukushima.
On Sunday, the World Health Organization said the risk of a radiation leak from Fukushima, and thus radiation exposure, is "probably quite low." That same day, Robert Engel, former IAEA inspector and Swiss nuclear engineer, said he doubted a complete meltdown would happen and that a partial meltdown, such as those that have happened already, "is not a disaster."
RESIDENTS AND WORKERS STILL AT RISK
But given the potential risks, authorities had evacuated 210,000 residents within a 13-mile radius of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Station Tuesday. After the fire broke out in the fourth reactor, Prime Minister Naoto Kan asked people within a 19-mile radius to stay indoors, adding "These are figures that potentially affect health, there is no mistake about that." The US announcement Thursday morning Japan time urging Americans living within 50 miles of the plant is a first.
The weather has compounded threats. The radiation emitted into the atmosphere around Fukushima may have been carried by winds that were blowing south toward Tokyo.
Officials at evacuation centers around Fukushima say radiation levels are too low to cause harm, but have distributed 230,000 iodine tablets. The tablets provide iodine to the body and help prevent the body from absorbing radioactive iodine from the air.
Workers in the Fukushima plant are being exposed to more radiation than those in surrounding areas. At least one worker has taken ill from radiation exposure, while others are being monitored for signs of radiation sickness.
The World Health Organization commended Japan Tuesday for taking the right steps to protect people from radiation exposure.