Friday, April 1, 2011

Fukushima Nuclear Reactors

Because of the scary events at the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan, the health hazards of radiation is in the news a lot. One place I turn to for authoritative information is the Health Physics Society. Here is what their website says:
“As you are well aware, the Japanese experienced the worst earthquake in their history, followed by a devastating tsunami. These natural disasters have had a serious impact on several Japanese nuclear reactors, principally those at the Fukushima Daiichi site. The Health Physics Society is concerned about radiation exposures associated with these reactor problems and desires to keep our members and the concerned public advised on current events associated with the Japanese nuclear plants.

For information on the potential for radiation from the Japanese Nuclear Plants reaching the United States, see this Health Physics Society Ask the Experts FAQ. For information on radiation particle effects on food, read this Bloomberg FAQ.

Details of the status of the reactors at Fukushima are available in a document issued by the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum that is provided here. We will be updating this news item periodically to provide current information.”
The Health Physics Society links to an interesting youtube video: an interview with John Boice of Vanderbilt University. He says “the fear is out of proportion to the risk,” and claims this event is no where near the situation in the Chernobyl diasater. (Warning: The interview was on March 20, and events seem to change daily.) The website also links to the following statement:
"RADIATION RISKS TO HEALTH
A Joint Statement from the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, the American Thyroid Association, The Endocrine Society, and the Society of Nuclear Medicine
March 18, 2011

The recent nuclear reactor accident in Japan due to the earthquake and tsunami has raised fears of radiation exposure to populations in North America from the potential plume of radioactivity crossing the Pacific Ocean. The principal radiation source of concern is radioactive iodine including iodine-131, a radioactive isotope that presents a special risk to health because iodine is concentrated in the thyroid gland and exposure of the thyroid to high levels of radioactive iodine may lead to development of thyroid nodules and thyroid cancer years later. During the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident in 1986, people in the surrounding region were exposed to radioactive iodine principally from intake of food and milk from contaminated farmlands. As demonstrated by the Chernobyl experience, pregnant women, fetuses, infants and children are at the highest risk for developing thyroid cancer whereas adults over age 20 are at negligible risk.

Radioiodine uptake by the thyroid can be blocked by taking potassium iodide (KI) pills or solution, most importantly in these sensitive populations. However, KI should not be taken in the absence of a clear risk of exposure to a potentially dangerous level of radioactive iodine because potassium iodide can cause allergic reactions, skin rashes, salivary gland inflammation, hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism in a small percentage of people. Since radioactive iodine decays rapidly, current estimates indicate there will not be a hazardous level of radiation reaching the United States from this accident. When an exposure does warrant KI to be taken, it should be taken as directed by physicians or public health authorities until the risk for significant exposure to radioactive iodine dissipates, but probably for no more than 1-2 weeks. With radiation accidents, the greatest risk is to populations close to the radiation source. While some radiation may be detected in the United States and its territories in the Pacific as a result of this accident, current estimates indicate that radiation amounts will be little above baseline atmospheric levels and will not be harmful to the thyroid gland or general health.

We discourage individuals needlessly purchasing or hoarding of KI in the United States. Moreover, since there is not a radiation emergency in the United States or its territories, we do not support the ingestion of KI prophylaxis at this time. Our professional societies will continue to monitor potential risks to health from this accident and will issue amended advisories as warranted."
News sources have been reporting that higher-than-normal radiation levels were detected in the United States. These observations say more about our ability to detect small amounts of radiation than about any risk to Americans. People living in the United States are at no risk of health hazards from radiation exposure caused by the Fukushima reactors.

In the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, Russ Hobbie and I discuss the risk of radiation in Section 13 of Chapter 16 (Medical Use of X Rays). We introduce the unit of the sievert (Sv), one of the most important units used when discussing radiation risk.
“Both the sievert and the gray are J kg-1. Different names are used to emphasize the fact that they are quite different quantities. One is physical, and the other includes biological effects. An older unit … is the rem. 100 rem = 1 Sv.”
We then analyze the natural background dose, which is about 3 mSv per year, and which arises from several sources, including cosmic radiation, terrestrial rocks, and inhalation of radon gas.

If you prefer learning from a video, watch Understanding the Reactor Meltdown in Fukushima, Japan from a Physics Perspective on YouTube.

Time will tell if this event turns into a full-scale disaster. At the moment, it is a serious situation, but does not appear to be a serious health hazard, except perhaps for the workers trying to repair the power plants.

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