MONDAY, March 14 (HealthDay News) -- An explosion Monday rocked
the second of three reactors at earthquake-ravaged Japan's
Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, but officials insisted that
radiation levels near the facility were safe, according to news
Authorities had been scrambling to cool the reactor with
seawater after Friday's devastating earthquake and tsunami knocked
out water systems and backup generators used to regulate
temperatures inside the reactor. A similar explosion at a second
reactor at the complex occurred on Saturday. The explosions
prompted an order for hundreds of people to stay indoors, the
Associated Press reported.
The plant's operators are being forced to periodically release
radioactive steam into the atmosphere as part of the make-shift
emergency cooling process that could last up to a year or more.
That's because the operators must constantly flood the reactors
with seawater, then release the resulting radioactive steam,
according to experts familiar with the design of the nuclear
complex, about 170 miles northeast of Toyko,
The New York Times reported.
Soon after Monday's explosion, the owner of the plant, Tokyo
Electric, warned it had lost the ability to cool the third reactor
at the site. Workers were once again preparing to flood the reactor
with seawater, which could lead to an explosion there as well, the
Following Monday's explosion, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary,
Yukio Edano, said the containment vessel holding radioactive
nuclear rods at the reactor was intact, allaying some fears of
health threats to the public. Television coverage of the building
housing the reactor appeared to show damage similar to Saturday's
blast at another reactor at the site, with outer walls blown off,
leaving only a skeletal frame, the
Workers are desperately trying 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. Edano said he was confident of
escaping the worst scenarios, the
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 news service reported.
International scientists said that, while there are serious
dangers posed by the stricken Japanese reactors, there's little
risk of a Chernobyl-style catastrophe. The Chernobyl reactor, in
the former Soviet republic the Ukraine, had no outer containment
shell when it was destroyed in 1986, the scientists noted, the
"The likelihood there will be a huge fire like at Chernobyl or a major environmental release like at Chernobyl, I think that's basically impossible," said James F. Stubbins, a nuclear energy professor at the University of Illinois.
Although more than 200,000 people had been evacuated from the
area around the Japanese reactors as a precaution, Edano said the
radioactivity released into the environment so far was small and
didn't pose any health threats, the
A complete meltdown could release uranium and dangerous
contaminants into the environment and pose major, widespread health
risks, the news service said.
Almost any increase in released radiation can raise long-term
cancer rates, and authorities were planning to distribute iodine to
residents in the area, according to the International Atomic Energy
Agency. Iodine counteracts the effects of radiation, the
As many as 160 people, including 60 elderly patients and medical
staff who had been waiting for evacuation in the nearby town of
Futabe, and 100 others evacuating by bus, might have been exposed
to radiation, said Ryo Miyake, a spokesman for Japan's nuclear
agency. The extent of their exposure -- or whether it had reached
dangerous levels -- was not clear. They were being taken to
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
Radiation expert Jacqueline Williams, a research professor in
the department of radiation oncology at the University of Rochester
in New York, said depending on the type of explosion at the reactor
site, there could be a radiation risk to those at the plant.
"Anybody who is going in will be exposed to radiation -- and it will be whole-body," she said. "That's where you can get a lot of injuries to emergency personnel and maintenance personnel, depending on the degree of protection they go in with," she added.
High levels of radiation can be lethal because "radiation
disrupts your cells and you die," she said.
The danger to people outside the immediate area could come from
inhaling radioactive particles, Williams said. The type of
radiation released into the air depends 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.
How far the 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."
In addition, all food should be washed and people should avoid
any contaminated milk and meat. Radiation can also affect the water
supply, Williams said.
"If it affects the water supply, then you are in more serious trouble," she said.
In Tokyo late Saturday afternoon, word of the explosion prompted
people to hoard supplies of bottled water, the
Washington Post reported.
"I saw a chain letter e-mail from my friend telling about the explosion in Fukushima," said one shopper who, as is the custom, wanted only to give his first name, Masahito. "Right now they're saying it's a nuclear accident. I have been trying to buy enough water for one week, just in case, but I can't find it anywhere. I've already been to four places, including a supermarket."
Williams noted that Japan relies on nuclear power for much of
its energy needs, since it has no natural power resources. "But
they are in an earthquake-prone area, and they have nuclear power
stations where they shouldn't be," she said.
For more on the health risks of nuclear radiation, visit the
University of Pittsburgh.
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