There’s an eerie video up on YouTube, shot by a Japanese journalist who ventured into the evacuation zone surrounding the Fukushima nuclear power plant, armed with a camera and a radiation meter. The video looks like b-roll footage from a low-budget zombie movie, with roving bands of stray dogs and a soundtrack of the radiation meter’s increasingly frantic beeping.
Shortly after the earthquake that damaged the plant, the Japanese government evacuated residents from a more than 1,000 square mile zone. Last week, they raised the severity level of the crisis at Fukushima to a 7 out of 7, making it the worst nuclear disaster since the complete meltdown of the reactor at Chernobyl, in 1986. In its wake, worldwide fear of nuclear power spiked. The German government shut down seven of its 17 nuclear reactors, and plans to eliminate nuclear power by 2020. In the U.S., a Fox News Poll conducted in early April found that 83 percent of respondents thought a similar disaster could happen to an American nuclear plant.
People fear radiation for good reason. All ionizing radiation passes unimpeded through cells of the body, mutating or destroying DNA along the way. The danger level depends on the dose and the length of exposure. We’re exposed to small amounts of radiation all the time — from cosmic rays to the normal radioactive decay of soil, rocks and building materials. Even the granite in the U.S. Capitol Building emits low levels of radiation. These levels are harmless, but a high dose can kill, and prolonged or repeated moderate exposure can lead to cancer.Continue reading…
This from John Beddington, the United Kingdom’s chief science advisor at its Tokyo embassy:
Let me now talk about what would be a reasonable worst case scenario. If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get this, you know, the dramatic word “meltdown”. But what does that actually mean? What a meltdown involves is the basic reactor core melts, and as it melts, nuclear material will fall through to the floor of the container. There it will react with concrete and other materials … that is likely… remember this is the reasonable worst case, we don’t think anything worse is going to happen. In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 metres up into the air. Now, that’s really serious, but it’s serious again for the local area. It’s not serious for elsewhere even if you get a combination of that explosion it would only have nuclear material going in to the air up to about 500 metres. If you then couple that with the worst possible weather situation i.e. prevailing weather taking radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo and you had maybe rainfall which would bring the radioactive material down do we have a problem? The answer is unequivocally no. Absolutely no issue. The problems are within 30 km of the reactor. And to give you a flavour for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500 metres but to 30,000 feet. It was lasting not for the odd hour or so but lasted months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time. But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was about 30 kilometres. And in that exclusion zone, outside that, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had problems from the radiation. The problems with Chernobyl were people were continuing to drink the water, continuing to eat vegetables and so on and that was where the problems came from. That’s not going to be the case here. So what I would really re-emphasise is that this is very problematic for the area and the immediate vicinity and one has to have concerns for the people working there. Beyond that 20 or 30 kilometres, it’s really not an issue for health.
Merrill Goozner has been writing about economics and health care for many years. The former chief economics correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, Merrill has written for a long list of publications including the New York Times, The American Prospect and The Washington Post. His most recent book, “The $800 Million Dollar Pill – The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs ” (University of California Press, 2004) has won acclaim from critics for its treatment of the issues facing the health care system and the pharmaceutical industry in particular. You can read more pieces by Merrill at GoozNews, where this post first appeared.