Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear plant after earthquake and tsunami. (Photo: DigitalGlobe via Getty)

Update March 18: New interview on Japanese radiation risk with atmospheric physics researcher.

Earlier post
It’s human nature to view catastrophes like those hitting Japan through a self-protective lens. Thus, when I woke up this morning, my first concern, irrational or not, was about any potential danger from trans-continental radiation traveling our way.

Apparently, I’m not the only one. From the Santa Rosa Press Democrat:

Suppliers see big demand in U.S. for anti-radiation pills

Fear of nuclear fallout from Japan’s earthquake- and tsunami-battered nuclear power plants has created a nationwide scramble for potassium iodide, a compound that can protect thyroid glands from radioactivity. “We sold out,” said Maxine Ward, who works in the supplement department of the Ukiah Natural Foods Co-Op…

Ward has ordered more potassium iodide, but national retail suppliers have been swamped with requests. “They’re all out of stock,” said Leila-Anne Brusseau, at Santa Rosa Community Market. The store normally does not stock the product but has been trying to get some because of demand. “I’m getting a call every five minutes,” Brusseau said. She said her main supplier told her they’d sold out after filling 1,200 orders in the first half hour of business on Monday.

The quest for anti-radiation pills appears to be an overreaction, at least according to the government, scientists, and health experts. From the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on March 13: “NRC Sees No Radiation at harmful levels Reaching U.S. From Damaged Japanese Nuclear Power Plants.”

From a San Jose Mercury News article this morning:

Northern Japan, where a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami crippled the cooling systems at three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, is about 5,000 miles from the West Coast of the United States. The amount of material released so far — mostly radioactive steam — has not been in large enough quantities to pour into the upper atmosphere and blow across the Pacific Ocean, experts said Monday.

“Based on what has happened to date, there is essentially zero risk,” said Jerrold Bushberg, director of health physics programs at UC Davis.

“No appreciable amount of radioactive material will reach Hawaii or the West Coast,” said Bushberg, who specializes in radiological emergency preparedness. “Anything there was would be so diluted, from rains over the Pacific Ocean, it would precipitate into the ocean. It wouldn’t be anything I would be concerned about…”

If a full-scale meltdown occurs in Japan, with a massive fire and explosion, and loss of containment, as happened at Chernobyl, that could send large amounts of radioactive material into the air, drifting above 5,000 feet, where weather patterns could bring it to the United States. Even then, the material would be spread out very widely.

Sarah Varney, health reporter for The California Report, talked to Professor Bushberg, quoted in the article above, and he reiterated the lack of risk to Californians from the Japanese accident:

Professor of Radiology and Radiation Oncology on the lack of fallout risk to Californians[audio:http://ww2.kqed.org/news/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2011/03/CalifRadiation.mp3]

KQED newscaster Joshua Johnson talked to Dr. Tony Van Curen, an atmospheric scientist with the California Air Resources Board, about the likelihood of radioactive emissions reaching our shores. Dr. Van Curen said the current levels of radioactive release don’t have a high potential to make it across the Pacific. If another explosion occurred venting particles higher into the atmosphere, then some fallout could very well travel our way, but it would be very dilute and spread out.

He also said that even in the most serious nuclear accident to date, at Chernobyl, the long-lasting deleterious health effects were limited geographically to the immediate area.

Atmospheric scientist on the likelihood of Japanese radiation reaching California[audio:http://ww2.kqed.org/news/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2011/03/Radiation21.mp3]

A bevy of health experts being interviewed by the press are advising people not to take potassium iodide. “It would be dangerous and not wise to take iodine without a reason,” the Press Democrat quotes Dr. Craig McMillan, Mendocino County’s public health officer.

The California Report’s Rachael Myrow talked to Mike Sicilia, spokesman for the California Health Department, about radiation concerns, and he too counseled Californians to skip the iodine because “there is no nuclear emergency.” He did however, note that half of all state citizens don’t have an updated emergency kit, which should include a three-days supply of water and personal prescription medications.

You can listen to The California Report segment, which also includes an interview about the safety of the San Onofre nuclear facility with an expert on nuclear containment leak-rate testing. He says that the station is built to withstand a 7.0 quake, a higher magnitude than the 6.4 limit projected for the area. The last interview is with a PG&E spokesman about the safety of San Luis Obispo’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, which sits near several fault lines.

And here’s a KTVU video report about the Bay Area radiation detectors deployed by the EPA’s National Air and Radiation Environmental Laboratory (RadNet). One detector sits atop the roof of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District office on Ellis and Van Ness in San Francisco, and one each has been set up in San Jose and Sacramento. The report says that the detectors are sensitive enough that they picked up particle traces from North Korean nuclear tests.

  • The Japanese nuclear events are a real tragedy. I’ve worked in the US nuclear industry for 25 years. My novel “Rad Decision” culminates in an event very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem – a station blackout with scram.) The book is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person — as I’ve been hearing from readers. It is available free online at the moment at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments.

    I believe there isn’t a perfect energy solution – just options – each with their good and bad points. And we’ll make better choices about our future if we first understand our energy present.

    • chip

      At least any other power source will not radiate the world!, and destroy food farms for hundreds of years later.

  • Jeffrey Georgia, MD

    May we put three questions to the “experts” who are both nuclear-trained and without an axe to grind (neither pro-party line nor antinuclear)? 1. Should worse-case scenario occur (which so far, has been par for the course following the Japan earthquake), is it possible for levels and wind patterns to combine to put portions of the U.S. West at some risk for radioactive iodine concentration in thyroids? 2. If so, what is the plan for adequate distribution of potassium iodide within the appropriate time frame, other than everyone flooding pharmacies, on-line distributors, and then resorting to dangerous “replacements?” 3. Who is monitoring the radiation levels and wind patterns in a transparent, available way, so that concerned citizens can follow the decision process? If I were the Governors of CA, OR, WA and MT, I’d be addressing these questions in public to reassure people and prevent people from hurting themselves with dangerous treatments based on partial information. Thanks. -JDG, MD

  • Cathy Wolfe

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”–George Santayana (1863-1952). Radioactive fallout may be a significant concern in the unfortunate event of a complete meltdown. Not that long ago UK Guardian reporters Terry Macalister and Helen Carter (2009) wrote that nearly 370 farms in Britain are still restricted in the way they use land and rear sheep because of radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear power station accident 23 years ago. Macalister and Carter also reported that the Ukraine explosion and fire was the biggest nuclear accident ever. In its aftermath 237 people suffered from acute radiation sickness, of whom 31 died within the first three months. Accurate statistics on the wider health problems have been hard to ascertain because the Soviet authorities of the time refused to provide details.More than 130,000 people were resettled from the immediate area and experts say there should be no farming there for at least 200 years. The Food Standards Agency said the release of radiocaesium-137 in upland areas of Britain is still able to pass easily from soil to grass and accumulate in sheep. You an read the complete article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/may/12/farmers-restricted-chernobyl-disaster

  • Ali

    Concerns I have is what if there is lower level but a continious release of radio particles from the japanese plants; what effect would a continious emission of radio particles will have into the atmosphere and is there any simulations that are done by weather pattern forcasters on such a scenario. And how it will impact the west coast. Most simulations will only consider one time catastrophic effects; but so far from what we know is that this radiation leak from Japan reactors are a continous thing and may linger on for a while; while things are being done to contain it. Can someone do a continous similulation of over a 2-3 weeks or over one month period with worst case emissions known so far being released over a periodic time frame. I am very interested how this will impact west coast. Also the pinapple jet stream sometimes mixes with the northern alaska stream before Hawaii before it arrives; and the pinapple stream after the Hawaii pacific location really becomes a high speed jet stream between hawaii and california. In that space that jet stream is high speed before it slows down a few hundred miles off the west coast shore turning into potential rain storms. What are the interactions of Hawaii pinapple stream with the Japan/alaskan weather pattern at this time of year? Especially, when there is a winter to spring transition as these wheather patterns set themselves and will have some interaction? If the issue of release of radio particles is prolonged over long period; please note that it is the accumlation of radio particles concentrated in animals over time that will have the more devastating impact in the long term and at longer distances. Radiation poisoning or exposure in the immediate area is short term exposure. Also, why can’t we get a decent real time weather graph over the pacific to see cloud pattern interactions on the internet? Is there any suggestions on this.

  • Jonathan Bennett

    Dr. Van Curen of the California Air Resources Board is mistaken when he tells us not to worry because “even in the most serious nuclear accident to date, at Chernobyl, the long-lasting deleterious health effects were limited geographically to the immediate area,” unless he considers Scotland and Wales, which are more than 1300 miles from Chernobyl to be part of the Ukraine’s “immediate area”.

    Scotland was so badly contaminated with radioactive Chernobyl fallout that for more than 24 years many Scottish sheep farms operated under a public health embargo, which was lifted (thanks to the fact that fission products have a half-life) only last year.

    See The Independent, “Scottish sheep farms finally free of Chernobyl fallout” By Kevin Rawlinson and Rachel Hovenden, 7 July 2010, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/scottish-sheep-farms-finally-free-of-chernobyl-fallout-2020059.html

    And of course, North America is downwind of Japan, but Scotland is generally upwind of Chernobyl.

  • Dan

    The area of effect for Chernobyl was about 1800 kilometers. Maybe up to 2400 kilometers if you want to take the Scottish sheep into account. London is about 2200 kilometers from Chernobyl.

    To put in perspective. Anchorage AK is approx 5200 kilometers from Fukashima. Seattle Wa is 7700 kilometers.

    Not that there is any safe distance from a nuclear release. The distances we are talking about are more than adequate to allow some particles to decay and all the rest to be dissapate. The effects on US west coast would be low.

    • Myriam

      Assuming all your data are correct, the issue I would like to point out, which has been touched by one of the readers and which extremely concerns, me is the continuing accumulation of these radioactive particles. What is the impact on human health and livestock safety. If we can measure the likelihood of any health hazard to human and livestock, and it’s possible negative effect on vegetation, then this would definitely allay fears and panic from the citizens of California and other countries that maybe affected by these radioactive fallout from Japan. Yes, majority of the scientists seemed nonchalant about the likelihood of health hazard impact of the level of radioactive material in the atmosphere that reached California, however, I have not heard nor read any article addressing the longterm accumulation impact of these radioactive particles. If anyone can enlightened the public, then that would surely help dampen the fear of a lot of people.

    • chip

      The jet stream does not flow the same in this case, and the earth was not 10″ off from her original position. Nobody nows what will actually happen with the changes that occured to our earth recently ! NO ONE!

  • Torgen

    While living in the Caribbean for many years it was a common occurrence to find the island suddenly covered in a thin coat of Sahara Desert sand. Sand storms in North Africa were carried by the jet stream for thousands of miles across the Atlantic. I disagree with the risk assessment by Dr. Van Curen of the California Air Resources Board. It was my first hand experience that sand particles of 500-1000 microns easily floated across the Atlantic in the jet stream and did not fall from the atmosphere before reaching land. It is also important to note that the sand originated at ground level and was carried aloft by natural wind currents. How can any “expert” claim that there is little to no risk to the west coast of the U.S. when the information coming from those handling the nuclear crisis in Japan aren’t even providing the Japanese Prime Minister with reliable information? Clearly, there should be several sources monitoring the potential radioactive fallout from Japan and making those findings easily available to the public. Currently I can not find any source online for this information.

    • chip

      Good point, and don’t forget the coal ash we receive from china annually!

  • alien husband

    -do you remember Chernobyl?– the cloud passed over here in the UK, and sheep and cattle were seen to be effected to the extent that milk from Wales and meat products were contaminated and deemed unfit for human consumption.
    Worry,doubt and protest !.The UK has a history of covering up nuclear accidents,but were quick enough to point out the danger coming from somewhere else.
    Is there a reason perhaps to play down this current incident?-of coarse there is,but maybe it would mean having to doubt the integrity of your own government and it’s nuclear agenda.
    Radiation is just half the problem,-there’s stuff being pumped into the atmosphere that is more lethal than radiation but can’t be measured,-ah,the wonders of plutonium.We’ll read all about the cancer clusters in about ten years from now.
    WAKE UP FOLKS,don’t get angry get even,and don’t believe the hype.

  • I’ve been trying to fallow along. What I believe to understand and question is this same headline. If I model Chernoble, I’ve heard reports that radiation leaked 400 square miles and wind blew it in every direction. As far as Germany and Scandinavia were affected. And for some 25 yrs. later, to some extent, like food for instance.
    I saw another report showing a birds eye view looking down on the earth at the N. Pole. It showed the jet stream coming from above Japan down towards Hawaii, splitting in half just before Hawaii, the left half getting caught in a circular pattern or low pressure and the other half continuing eastward toward our coast. The odd thing I noticed is that as the video rolled, the red in the weather pattern that started in the vacinity of Northern Japan, ended up at our coast with a timer ticking down within the day. Not exactly sure, but I thought I noticed the development from 4am thru 1pm? If I calculate 400 squared into a straight line, it equales 160000 miles. It is approx. 3850 mi. from Japan to Hawaii and approx. 2400 mi. from Hawaii to U.S. Coast.
    I don’t need to add that the above mentioned nuclear disaster was one reactor and in comparison we now have X4 to X8 potentially. And finally, I cannot part without thanking God for those giving their life working on attempting to save us and our planet.

  • joseph gonsalves

    i wondered if anyone had given to cooling the nuclear reactors in japan with something other than water in this crisis.my idea would be to conveyorize dry ice to the heating rods in conjunction with piped in liquid nitrogen.this would help cool and also supply an inert atmoshere to prevent flame from occuring.i hope someone can pass this along.i cannot find a website e-mail address to send it to to get it to a nuclear commision. thank you

  • Einstein Says

    While it may be true that only “dilute” particles will reach us, if those dilute particles include the plutonium from reactor 3, won’t they be deadly enough to cause lung cancer in anyone unfortunate enough to inhale them? With the wrong combination of explosions and wind, doesn’t that include us? See the following.

    Plutonium problem: http://www.eetimes.com/electronics-news/4214120/Plutonium–fuel-rod-reactions-stoke-nuclear-tensions

    Radioactive plume path: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/03/16/science/plume-graphic.html?ref=science

  • Reports say radioactive particles, from what I believe to be the first low levels that escaped when this thing started, will bee reaching our So. Cal by Fri. That weather pattern did move fast and more fallout will continue continuously and continue to higher levels. Whatever levels they are experiencing is what we may experience 2 to 6 days later.

  • Brandywine3

    I’ll be OK, I’ll just crawl under my desk, like the government told me to do when I was in grade school, and cover my head. I still believe that hiding under a piece of wood will protect me from a F**KING NUCLEAR HOLOCAUST. DOE’S ANYONE KNOW WHO “THEY” IS?

    • chip

      When is the last time anyone believed the government ?

  • joerocker

    Just show us actual Rad. Levels and we can made up our own minds.
    Show us real time hour by hour Rad Levels!
    not that i don’t trust you, Yes I don’t trust you.


Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is the host and editor of KQED’s health and technology blog, Future of You. He is the former editor of KQED’s daily news blog, News Fix. A veteran blogger, he previously worked for Yahoo! in various news writing and editing roles. He was also the editor of EconomyBeat.org, which documented user-generated content about the financial crisis and recession. Jon is also a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S. He has written about film for his own blog and studied film at Boston University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College.

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