March 16th, 2011
02:43 PM ET
The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, which has suffered numerous fires, explosions and subsequent radiation leaks since Friday's earthquake, could get worse, and just how much worse is unknown.
But health and nuclear safety experts agree that even if radiation levels around the plant reach Chernobyl-like levels, Japan's disaster will not pose a health hazard to the United States.
The United States is thousands of miles from the leaks and once the radiation gets into the air, it disperses and dilutes as the wind blows it, said Nolan Hertel, nuclear engineering researcher at Georgia Institute of Technology. Radioactive particles travel with the wind and fall out onto the ground. The amount that will reach the United States will be too little to cause health problems.
"It’s not like there’s a big blob of it and it’s all going to stay together. All this stuff is either gaseous or highly diluted," Hertel said.
Still, some elevation in U.S. radiation will probably be noted, he said. The more radiation that's released from the plant, the more likely the United States will detect it. The direction the wind blows and the presence of rain also matters, said Malcolm Grimston, nuclear technology expert at the Chatham House in the United Kingdom. Radioactive caesium and iodine, some of the concerning chemicals being released by the plant, can dissolve in rain water, he said.
The distance between Los Angeles and Chernobyl is about 6,246 miles; Los Angeles to Fukushiima Daiichi is only a bit closer, at 5,368 miles. New York to Chernobyl, located in modern-day Ukraine, is even closer at 4,629 miles. But there has been no evidence of health effects felt in the United States from that nuclear accident, which was worse in its radiation effects than Fukushima Daiichi (so far).
Also, iodine-131, the radioactive form of iodine that's a byproduct of the uranium at Fukushiima Daiichi, disintegrates into an unstable form of xenon that then becomes stable xenon, which is not harmful. Iodine-131 has a "half life" of eight days, meaning that in eight days, half of a given sample of it will be gone. So, in a few months' time, the amount of radioactive iodine will go down to negligible levels, said Bingham Cady of Cornell University.
Cady's bottom line is that there shouldn't be concern that the United States will feel health effects in the wake of Japan's crisis; the more serious issue is whether American nuclear power plants are also susceptible to these kinds of problems during natural disasters such as earthquakes.
After Chernobyl, small children developed thyroid cancer because radioactive iodine that fell from the sky got into the grass that cows ate, and those cows produced milk for drinking. But iodine is easily detected so there shouldn't be a problem with milk or water, Cady said.
"We know enough to monitor water for radioactivity and if it’s contaminated above a certain very small amount, not to drink it," he said. "Japan is so sophisticated, and so is the United States. We’re not going to go around and by mistake, drink radioactive water."
Cady and Hertel said those on the West Coast of the United States who are buying a lot of potassium iodide to protect themselves against the harmful effects of radioactive iodine on the thyroid are overreacting. Grimston said it's fine to have it around, as long as people use it only when authorities say it's OK. Taking it unnecessarily is not a good idea.
"If it makes someone feel more secure, having a supply on hand, that’s a personal decision that that individual should make," Dr. James Thrall, chief of radiology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told CNN's American Morning.
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