TUESDAY, March 15 (HealthDay News) -- The crisis at Japan's
stricken complex of four nuclear reactors deteriorated dramatically
Tuesday as explosions continued to rock the site and reports
emerged that water in a pool used to cool spent fuel rods may be
More radiation was released from the complex that was devastated
by Friday's earthquake and resulting tsunami, and Prime Minister
Naoto Kan said the radiation had leaked from the four reactors, the
Associated Press reported.
"The level seems very high, and there is still a very high risk of more radiation coming out," he said.
To combat health risks to residents, government officials were
planning to distribute potassium iodide pills -- to prevent thyroid
cancer, the most immediate risk. However, in a worst-case scenario
-- large amounts of released radiation -- the result could be many
other types of cancers years later, the
Radiation experts said the threat to North America was virtually
non-existent because any escaped radiation would dissipate before
it crossed the Pacific Ocean.
One radiation expert, Jacqueline Williams, a research professor
in the department of radiation oncology at the University of
Rochester in New York, said high levels of radiation -- potentially
like those experienced by workers at the nuclear complex -- can be
lethal because "radiation disrupts your cells and you die."
The danger to people outside the immediate area could come from
inhaling radioactive particles, Williams said. The type of
radiation released into the air would depend on the type of fuel
used at a plant, she added.
Often the big components of released radiation are radioactive
iodine and radioactive cesium, Williams said.
Breathing in or eating food contaminated with radioactive iodine
can cause thyroid cancer. Food can become contaminated as the
radioactive dust settles on crops and even grass that cows or other
animals eat, she explained.
Radioactive cesium can cause more damage long-term, including
cancer and lung problems, Williams said.
Workers at the crippled plant continued Tuesday to desperately
try to avoid a complete meltdown at the reactors -- the melting of
the radioactive core -- that could release radioactive contaminants
into the environment and pose major, widespread health risks, the
The New York Times, workers -- at great personal peril -- continued to pump seawater into the reactors in an attempt to keep them cool. The last-ditch effort was needed because Friday's twin disasters had knocked out conventional cooling systems and backup generators. Most of the 800 workers at the plant had been removed, with a skeleton crew of about 50 or so workers still on hand, while crews battled a fire at one of the reactors.
A "meltdown" isn't a technical term, but instead a layman's
description of a serious collapse of a power plant's systems and
ability to control temperatures, the
Still, even a meltdown would not necessarily mean catastrophe,
experts said: it depends on the amount and type of radioactive
materials. Donald Olander, professor emeritus of nuclear
engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, said even
the much higher levels of radiation reported on Tuesday are "not a
health hazard," the
Experts put the situation in Japan in context to the two biggest
nuclear reactor scares in the past -- in 1986 at the Chernobyl
plant in the Ukraine, and in 1979 at the Three Mile Island plant in
At Three Mile Island, even though a quarter of the reactor core
melted, the steel containment structure held. The radiation
released was so small that it did not threaten health, the
At Chernobyl, where there was no containment vessel like those
in Japan or Three Mile Island, far more radioactive material was
released, and it was a more dangerous type than at Three Mile
Island. The radiation remained in soil and worked its way into
vegetation in the Ukraine, contaminating milk and meat for decades.
Thousands of children developed thyroid cancer from radiation
exposure, the news service said.
"Right now it [the crisis in Japan] is worse than Three Mile Island," said Olander. He believes that even the heavily elevated levels of radiation around the four reactors are "not a health hazard." But without knowing specific dose levels, he said it was hard to make judgments, the AP said.
More than 200,000 people had been evacuated from the area around
the Japanese reactors as a precaution.
How far radioactivity might spread would depend on weather
conditions such as wind and rain, Williams said. These factors also
need to be taken into account when deciding how far to move people
from potential danger.
"The best protection from radiation is to get inside," she said. "Get something between you and the radiation."
Friday's earthquake and tsunami that pounded Japan's
northeastern coast has left at least 2,800 people dead and hundreds
missing, according to government officials. But police in one of
the hardest-hit areas said the death toll there alone could
eventually top 10,000, the
For more on the health risks of nuclear radiation, visit the
University of Pittsburgh.
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