- The risk of radiation from Japan’s nuclear disaster reaching North America is considered highly unlikely by experts.
- Radioactive plumes reaching the US from Japan would be heavily diffused and significantly weakened due to the distance and dilution factor.
- The radiation level by the time it reaches the US, even in catastrophic events, would be no more than the usual background radiation we experience daily.
- Concerns exist around increased radiation risks in the case of severe reactor meltdowns, as such events can potentially house more radiation than 1,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs.
- Preventative health measures that can mitigate immediate radiation risks include the distribution of potassium iodide pills to ward off thyroid cancer.
Even though the remnants of the tsunami, which devastated the nuclear complex in Japan, did reach America’s coastline, experts affirm that it’s highly unlikely that any radiation from this disastrous event across the Pacific Ocean will reach North America.
Radiation Risk: An Expert’s View
Jacqueline Williams, program director for radiation medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Center for Biophysical Assessment and Risk Management Following Irradiation, stated that the chances of any radioactive plume reaching the United States are “close to zero“. She further mentioned, “Obviously, what’s happening is changing from moment to moment, but there seems to be very little in the way fear.”
Radiation levels that have been previously released in Japan “are very much dissipated,” shared Barry Rosenstein, a professor of radiation oncology at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. As a result, any radiation that could reach the US mainland would be at extremely low levels.
The Dilution Factor
Japan is situated over 5,000 miles away from North America, thus any radiation reaching there would have to make a significant journey by air. During this course, any radioactivity would be diffused and considerably weakened.
Williams posited that this weakening is due to the “sheer dilution factor”. Even in the face of the most catastrophic event, similar to Chernobyl, a massive radiation release wouldn’t mean a significant threat to the US, she claims. The heavier radiation particles would fall out, assuring that by the time anything reached the US, it would be no more than the usual background radiation we experience on a daily basis.
Everyday “background” radiation comes from various sources in the Earth, including solar rays, atmospheric conditions, and even drinking water. Although not harmful, this radiation is continuously present in our surroundings.
The Unforeseen Threat
Despite these reassurances, not all experts remain entirely unconcerned. Massachusetts-based nuclear safety expert and past-president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Dr. Ira Helfand has expressed concerns about potential hazards, particularly resulting from a potential meltdown.
In case of a severe reactor meltdown, superheated fuel would interact explosively with the coolant water. Helfand highlighted that “each reactor can house more radiation than 1,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs”. The resulting radiation and its spread would pose a significant question mark, given the inconclusive variables involved.
The Current Crisis
The catastrophic events surrounding Japan’s cluster of four nuclear reactors have worsened with continuing explosions and emerging news of boiling water in the cooling pools. Furthermore, more radiation was released due to the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
To mitigate potential health risks, government officials are planning a distribution of potassium iodide pills to fend off thyroid cancer, which is the most immediate radiation risk. In the worst scenario of substantial radiation release, however, there could be many other types of cancers surfacing years later.
For more detailed information on the risks of nuclear radiation, you can visit the University of Pittsburgh’s webpage.