RADIATION AND HEALTH CONSEQUENCES OF THE FUKUSHIMA NUCLEAR ACCIDENT

RADIATION RELEASED FROM FUKUSHIMA NUCLEAR POWER PLANT

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radiation map of a Fukushima reactor
The total amount of radiation discharged from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is one-sixth of the estimated 5.2 million tera-becquerels emitted in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, TEPCO said. The amount of radioactive material that leaked into the environment from the Nos. 1 to 3 reactors in the five days following the March 11 disaster is estimated at 900,000 terabecquerels. Radiation amounts released after those five days was considerably less, the utility said. One terabecquerel is equal to 1 trillion becquerels. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 26, 2012]

“The amount of radioactive material discharged as a result of the hydrogen explosion at the No. 1 reactor building on March 12 and at the No. 3 reactor building on March 14 was relatively small at 5,000 terabecquerels and 1,000 terabecquerels, respectively, the report said. Radioactive emissions from steam venting operations carried out to relieve pressure within the No. 1 and No. 3 containment vessels were also relatively small at a total of about 1,400 terabecquerels, it said. [Ibid]

No one, including personnel who worked in the buildings at Fukushima nuclear power plant, died from radiation exposure. Robert Peter Gale and Eric Lax wrote in Bloomberg, “Why are the anticipated risks from Japan’s nuclear accident so small? Perhaps the most important reason is that about 80 percent of the radiation released was blown into the ocean. Radioactive contamination of the sea sounds dreadful, but because oceans naturally contain large amounts of radioactive materials, the net increase in oceanic radioactivity is minuscule. Another reason the public was protected is that the 200,000 or so people living within 15 miles of Fukushima were rapidly evacuated. People living in a few hotspot towns slightly farther away who didn’t leave on their own received the highest civilian doses. [Source: Robert Peter Gale & Eric Lax, Bloomberg, March 10, 2013. Robert Peter Gale, a visiting professor of hematology at Imperial College London, has for 30 years been involved in the global medical response to nuclear and radiation accidents. He helped victims at Chernobyl. Eric Lax is a writer and author of “Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know.”]

Links to Articles in this Website About the 2011 Tsunami and Earthquake: 2011 EAST JAPAN EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI: DEATH TOLL, GEOLOGY AND THEORIES Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; ACCOUNTS OF THE 2011 EARTHQUAKE Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; DAMAGE FROM 2011 EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS AND SURVIVOR STORIES Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TSUNAMI WIPES OUT MINAMISANRIKU Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SURVIVORS OF THE 2011 TSUNAMI Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; DEAD AND MISSING FROM THE 2011 TSUNAMI Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; RESCUE, RELIEF, REBUILDING AFTER TSUNAMI Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; LIFE FOR SURVIVORS AFTER THE TSUNAMI Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; CRISIS AT THE FUKUSHIMA NUCLEAR POWER PLANT Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TEPCO, AND THE SAFETY OF FUKUSHIMA NUCLEAR PLANT Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; MELTDOWNS AT THE FUKUSHIMA Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; EARLY HOURS AT FUKUSHIMA AFTER THE TSUNAMI STRUCK Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; WHO’s TO BLAME FOR THE FUKUSHIMA Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; DAMAGE CONTROL AT FUKUSHIMA NUCLEAR POWER PLANT Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; RADIATION RELEASED FROM FUKUSHIMA Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; IMPACT OF EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI OF MARCH 11, 2011 ON TOKYO, TRANSPORTATION AND ELECTRICITY Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; IMPACT OF 2011 EAST JAPAN EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI ON THE ECONOMY Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; NUCLEAR ENERGY IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan

Distribution and Types of Radiation Released by the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants

“A breakdown of radioactive emissions showed that short-lived iodine-131 stood at 500,000 terabecquerels, while cesium amounted to 400,000 terabecquerels in iodine equivalents, the report said. Emissions from the Nos. 2 and 3 reactors accounted for about 40 percent and 20 percent, respectively, of the total, according to the report. TEPCO said there were no significant leaks from No. 4 reactor, which had been halted for regular maintenance at the time of the disaster, as spent nuclear fuel stored in its fuel pool was not subject to any serious damage from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 26, 2012]

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: The impact of a nuclear accident depends, to an extraordinary degree, on luck---not only on the fateful actions of workers in a crisis but on the direction of the wind. For four days after the meltdown, the wind blew out to sea. But then it swung sharply around and turned to the northwest. To make matters worse, there was rain and snow, which captured radioactive particles in the air and drove them deep into Fukushima’s mountain forests and streams. For days, the government stayed silent about where the fallout was going. Leaders were “afraid of triggering a panic,” Goshi Hosono, the minister in charge of the crisis, has said. It was unwise; some evacuees fled into the plume, a mistake that has prompted one local mayor to accuse the government of murder. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

Radioactive barium, cesium, iodine and tellurium were detected March 16 in a radiation plume released by damaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima. A partly dispersed cloud passed by the Tokyo area the same day, Austria’s Meteorological and Geophysics Center reported. In June 2011 Japan's nuclear safety agency said the amount of radiation that leaked from Fukushima Daiichi in the first week of the accident may have been more than double that initially estimated by Tepco.

How bad is the Fukushima fallout? According to an article in Yomiuri Shimbun, “Fallout of cesium-137 has been monitored for every 24-hour period since March 18 at observation points in each prefecture, except quake-hit Fukushima and Miyagi. Cesium-137 is an international indicator for radioactive contamination. Monitoring data has shown the total fallout of cesium-137 in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Prefecture, for 18 days through Tuesday morning was 26,399 becquerels per square meter. In Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, the figure was 6,615 becquerels per square meter. Rain on March 21-22--the first since the nuclear crisis began--brought down a large amount of cesium-137, spreading the contamination to Tokyo and 13 prefectures in and around the Kanto region.”

In October 2011, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported, plutonium believed to have been released from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant after the March 11 earthquake was founded in six locations. A map released by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry on shows plutonium was found in soil samples taken from six locations in Futabamachi, Namiemachi and Iitatemura, Fukushima Prefecture. One of the spots is 45 kilometers from the plant. However, a ministry official said because amounts of both substances were very small, decontamination efforts should focus on radioactive cesium.

Strontium-89 and strontium-90, both believed to have been released from the power plant, were detected at 45 spots. The maximum quantity of strontium-90, whose half-life of about 29 years is much longer than the approximately 50-day half-life of strontium-89, was 5,700 becquerels per square meter detected in Futabamachi. This is six times that of the maximum quantity of 950 becquerels found before the Fukushima plant accident.

No. 2 Reactor Source of Most of the Radiation

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Tokyo Electric Power Co. has revealed that the damaged containment vessel of the No. 2 reactor at its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was the main source of radiation contamination in Iitate and neighboring areas in northeastern Fukushima Prefecture. The damaged No. 2 reactor's containment vessel released an estimated 160,000 terabecquerels of radioactive substances on March 15, causing the soil in surrounding areas to become heavily contaminated, TEPCO said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 26, 2012]

“TEPCO's estimates covered the period from March 12 to March 31. Radioactive emissions after the beginning of April were considered less than 1 percent of those in March and were not included in the latest estimates, the utility said. TEPCO arrived at the estimate by reverse calculating data such as radiation readings taken at the crippled nuclear plant. Radiation sources were also determined by examining changes in reactor steam pressure, the company said. [Ibid]

“There is a high probability that pressure inside the No. 2 reactor's containment vessel rose to 1.5 times the designated maximum in the early hours of March 15, causing damage to seams and other parts of the vessel, it said. A southeasterly wind later that afternoon, followed by rain in the evening, contributed to the heavy soil contamination in and around Iitate, the company said. [Ibid]

“Radioactive emissions from the nuclear power plant registered a maximum level of 180,000 terabecquerels the day after the disaster. However, it is considered to have diffused into the atmosphere as there was no rainfall that day, TEPCO said.Pressure inside the No. 3 reactor's containment vessel declined by more than one-third on March 15 and 16, indicating a massive amount of radioactive steam may have leaked out of the damaged vessel during the two days, the utility's report said. [Ibid]

Most Fukushima Residents Exposed to Modest Amounts of Radiation

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high radiation affects film
In February 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: About 58 percent of Fukushima Prefecture residents were likely externally exposed to radiation measuring less than 1 millisievert during the first four months of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, according to a survey by the Fukushima prefectural government. The prefectural government released its estimate of the external radiation doses of 10,468 people. The prefecture has a population of about 2 million people. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 21, 2012]

Of 9,747 people, excluding workers at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, 57.8 percent were estimated to have been exposed to levels less than 1 millisievert--which is considered the annual limit of radiation exposure under normal circumstances--during the first four months, according to the survey. The survey found 94.6 percent of residents were considered to have been exposed to less than 5 millisieverts of radiation.

Only two women were estimated to have been exposed to radiation levels exceeding 20 millisieverts. The main reason behind the two women's high exposure level is that the two stayed in the expanded evacuation zone--the area spanning five municipalities beyond a 20-kilometer radius around the power plant--for more than three months. One of the women is thought to have been exposed to 23 millisieverts of radiation, the highest among people who did not work at the nuclear plant.

"In past epidemiological examinations, obvious health effects have not been observed with cumulative doses of 100 millisieverts or less. The results of the survey show the level of radiation exposure will not likely impact residents' health," an official of the prefecture said. Among 1,693 people under 20 years old who were surveyed, one male was estimated to have been exposed to 18.1 millisieverts, but all others were exposed to less than 10 millisieverts. Among workers at the nuclear plant, the highest level was 47.2 millisieverts.

Health Consequences of Fukushima Radiation Releases

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: The Fukushima meltdowns scattered nuclear fallout over an area the size of Chicago. Government scientists estimate that the total radiation released on land was about a sixth of the level at Chernobyl. Unlike the Russians, Japanese authorities warned parents not to give local milk to their children. An analysis published by the Princeton University physicist Frank von Hippel estimated that roughly a thousand deadly cancers may result from the Fukushima meltdowns; he cautioned that the data are preliminary and that psychological effects should be considered as well. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

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radiation inside Unit 1
Dr. Fred A. Mettler, Jr., the American representative to a United Nations committee on radiation assessment, said, “Forty per cent of people in developed countries get cancer anyway, so, compared to that normal rate, I think the risk is going to be low---and may not be detectable.” Of nearly four thousand workers who have passed through the plant since the meltdowns, only a hundred and three have been found to have received more than a hundred millisieverts of radiation. At that level, scientists predict about a one-per-cent increase over the normal rate of cancer. The most serious cases are two workers who were exposed to more than five hundred millisieverts in the first weeks of the crisis.

Discover health journalist Jeff Wheelwright says the evidence linking small radiation doses to cancer is flimsy. He wrote: “Radiation can be precisely measured in the environment, but the biological effects at low levels can only be guessed at. That there will be some human cancers is assumed, thanks to the linear no-threshold theory of cancer, which holds that no radiation dose is so small that it cannot produce a probability of cancer. This theory was proposed after World War II, when researchers found that survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had disproportionately high rates of cancer later in life. Scientists used those data to extrapolate how many excess cancer cases would develop at lower radiation doses. Today these incremental cases are believed to exist even though there is no way to detect them against the normal background of disease: Even without man-made radiation exposure, about one in three people develop cancer. [Source: Jeff Wheelwright, Discover, July 5, 2012 >>>>]

“Fukushima evacuees will be allowed to return home once cleanup efforts bring exposure down to 20 millisieverts per year, equivalent to two or three abdominal CAT scans. The no-threshold theory predicts that if everyone returns and absorbs that dose during their first year back, 80 extra people (1 in 1,000) will eventually develop cancer. “They take the very tiny radiation and multiply it by a large population,” says John Boice Jr., director of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. “It causes undue alarm. Those cancers can’t be measured. They may not be there at all.” >>>>

How Much is 20 Millisieverts? 1) Six times the yearly dose absorbed in the course of everyday life; 2) two to three times the radiation from one abdominal CAT scan; 3) one fifth the lowest does known to increase cancer risk. >>>>

Radiation Studies

“Domestic studies on radioactive fallout date back to 1957...amid the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union conducted a large number of nuclear tests. In 1962 alone, at least 178 nuclear tests took place, dispersing plutonium and other radioactive materials into the atmosphere. In Osaka, 688 becquerels per square meter of cesium-137 was measured in May 1963.”

“The worst case of radioactive contamination was the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, in April 1986. About 7 tons of radioactive materials--about 400 times what was released by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima--were released across the Northern Hemisphere. In Kanazawa, cesium fallout was 318 becquerels per square meter in May that year.”

“Areas within 30 kilometers of the Chernobyl plant were incredibly contaminated--as much as 1.48 million becquerels per square meter in some areas. Residents in these areas were evacuated. In parts of Germany and other nations, more than 70,000 becquerels per square meter were detected. In Belarus and Moldova, also Soviet republics at the time, and other nations such as Austria and Finland, the average amount of fallout exceeded 10,000 becquerels per square meter.”

“The level of radioactive fallout in Hitachinaka and some other areas in the wake of the Fukushima crisis is believed to be higher than that reported in the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States, and about the same as that reported in Europe after the Chernobyl incident. Fallout levels in the Kanto region have been decreasing this month. Daily readings have been about the same as the early 1960s when so many nuclear tests were conducted. Some experts have said these levels pose no threat to people's health. However, highly radioactive water leaked from the Fukushima plant into the ocean could cause severe damage to marine life.”

Robert Peter Gale on the Health Effects of Radiation

Robert Peter Gale and Eric Lax wrote in Bloomberg, “No one, including personnel who worked in the buildings, died from radiation exposure. Most experts agree that future health risks from the released radiation, notably radioactive iodine-131 and cesiums-134 and - 137, are extremely small and likely to be undetectable. Even considering the upper boundary of estimated effects, there is unlikely to be any detectable increase in cancers in Japan, Asia or the world except close to the facility, according to a World Health Organization report. There will almost certainly be no increase in birth defects or genetic abnormalities from radiation. Even in the most contaminated areas, any increase in cancer risk will be small. For example, a male exposed at age 1 has his lifetime cancer risk increase from 43 percent to 44 percent. Those exposed at 10 or 20 face even smaller increases in risk -- similar to what comes from having a whole-body computer tomography scan or living for 12 to 25 years in Denver amid background radiation in the Rocky Mountains. (There is no discernible difference in the cancer rates between people who live in Denver and those in Los Angeles or New York.)” [Source: Robert Peter Gale & Eric Lax, Bloomberg, March 10, 2013. Robert Peter Gale, a visiting professor of hematology at Imperial College London, has for 30 years been involved in the global medical response to nuclear and radiation accidents. Eric Lax is a writer and author of “Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know.” Gale helped treat the worst cases of radiation poisoning at Chernobyl and has been involved with the follow-up in the years since the accident. He has been involved in Japan since the catastrophe and worked with Japanese scientists to estimate health risks. <+>]

“Exposure to radiation isn’t always what it seems. Of course, people in the path of a radioactive cloud may receive a dangerous dose of radiation, depending on the concentration of radionuclides, atmospheric conditions and their location -- indoors or outside -- when the plume passes. Immediate countermeasures are essential. In Japan, laudably, most people were sheltered in place and then evacuated in a relatively controlled manner. Some people received iodine tablets.<+>

“An independent commission found considerable confusion among Japanese government officials, personnel at the nuclear power facility and executives at Tokyo Electric Power Company in Tokyo. Furthermore, emergency authorities didn’t share or use some important data on radioactive contamination, and that caused some people to be evacuated to zones of higher radioactive contamination. And some children remained in high- radiation areas far too long. Nevertheless, official actions largely protected the public, and most continuing fears of health risks from radiation have little basis in fact. <+>

Although immediate and long-term health risks of nuclear accidents are often exaggerated, social, psychological and economic consequences are obviously enormous. Citizens of Japan are understandably traumatized by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. But to make intelligent decisions about radiation, it’s best to rely on facts -- and not let emotional or illogical fears get in the way.

Iodine 131, Cesium 137 Worries About Radiation from the Fukushima Plants

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Radioactive material is a term that comprises unstable elements that discharge radioactivity and heat in nuclear fission. There are many kinds of such material found in nature. Uranium and plutonium are two kinds that are used as fuel in nuclear power generation. The level of risk they pose to humans varies. If radioactivity harms the genes in human cells or other organs, the risk of cancer and leukemia increases. In a worst case scenario, people may suffer from acute radiation poisoning.

In a nuclear accident, radioactive isotopes including iodine-131 and cesium-137, which are normally contained inside the fuel rods, may be released into the atmosphere as gases or particulates if the rods are damaged. These can be inhaled or ingested through contaminated food or water. Children are especially susceptible to radiation poisoning from iodine, which can accumulate in the thyroid gland, according to the World Health Organization.

The radiation initially released by the explosions at leaks at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was mostly isotope iodine 131, which is not that dangerous in the long term because it decays relatively quickly. Iodine 131 has a half life of only eight days and disappears completely from the environment within a couple months. Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times, “Iodine 131 is dangerous because it concentrates in the thyroid gland, resulting in high radiation doses to that vulnerable organ. The thyroid is such an iodine magnet that a week after a nuclear weapons test in China, iodine 131 could be detected in the thyroid glands of deer in Colorado, although it could not be detected in the air or in nearby vegetation.”

More serious worries were raised when a long-lasting radioactive element, cesium 137 were measured at levels that pose a long-term danger at one spot 25 miles from the Fukushima plant. The amount of cesium 137, measured in one village 25 miles from the plant by the International Atomic Energy Agency exceeded the standard that the Soviet Union used as a gauge to recommend abandoning land surrounding the Chernobyl reactor. Using a measure of radioactivity called the becquerel, the tests found as much as 3.7 million becquerels per square meter; the standard used at Chernobyl was 1.48 million. This lead to concerns that a large chunk of land might to have to be abandoned for years. Cesium-137 has a relatively long half life of about 30 years and can accumulate in the muscles once it is in the body and can cause cancer.

The New York Times reported: “In contrast to iodine 131, which decays rapidly, cesium 137 persists in the environment for centuries. The reported measurements would not be high enough to cause acute radiation illness but far exceed standards for the general public designed to cut the risks of cancer. The Japanese authorities and the anti-nuclear environmental group Greenpeace have reported similar readings from the area; Greenpeace and some other groups are pressing for the affected area to be evacuated.” More than 15 years after the Chernobyl accident in what is now Ukraine, studies found that cesium 137 was still detectable in wild boar in Croatia and reindeer in Norway, with the levels high enough in some areas to pose a potential danger to people who consume a great deal of the meat.

Cesium-137 that enters the body is distributed throughout the soft tissues, especially in muscle. Cesium-137 is eliminated faster from the body than other radionuclides, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Slowly, but surely it will pass out of the body,” Stephen Lincoln, a professor of chemistry at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, told Bloomberg. [Source: Kanoko Matsuyama and Yuriy Humber, Bloomberg, December 7, 2011]

One of the critical factors determining the extent of the danger posed by radiation releases has been wind direction. Most of the time the prevailing westerlies carried the radiation out to sea, where it didn’t pose much of a threat to human life and largely dispersed before it reached inhabited areas in the Americas. Most worrisome for Japan were northerly winds that pushed the radiation south towards Tokyo and other densely populated areas of Japan.

Radiation, Life, Limits and Dangerous Levels

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radiation monitor
Radiation is all around us. It is part of our daily life and impossible to escape. Gautam Naik wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Radiation is in the ground, at the doctors' office and even from the sun and stars. While large doses can be harmful, these smaller doses are part of everyday life. Television sets, smoke detectors and luminous watches can also contribute tiny amounts. Natural radioactivity even occurs in foods such as carrots and bananas, and in beer.” [Source: Gautam Naik, Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2011]

“Radioactive materials are made of unstable atoms. Such atoms give off excess energy until they become stable; the emitted energy is known as radiation,” Naik wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “An American will receive an annual radiation dose of about 620 millirem, or 6,200 microsieverts, a dose that isn't deemed to be harmful, says the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Half of this radiation exposure comes from natural background sources, such as radioactive materials that naturally exist in rocks, soil and other sources, as well as cosmic rays. Reactor Monitor The other half originates from human sources, mainly diagnostic medical procedures such as computer tomography scans, which emit roughly 1,500 microsieverts of radiation, or a full set of dental X-rays, about 400 microsieverts.” A sievert is a unit to quantify the biological effects of radiation.[Ibid]

“To put the reports coming out of Japan in perspective, the NRC limits occupational radiation exposure for adults working with radioactive material to 50,000 microsieverts a year. The Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan said that on Monday morning, a radiation level of 3,130 microsieverts per hour was recorded at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, about six times the legal limit. Later in the morning, a radiation level of 326 microsieverts was recorded there.” [Ibid]

The effects of radiation sickness includes damage to lymph tissue, the intestinal tract, and bone marrow, among other organs. “Significant radiation exposure boosts cancer risk. Damage that occurs at the cellular or molecular level can disrupt the body's natural control processes and allow an uncontrolled growth of cells, or cancer. Ionizing radiation can bring this about by breaking chemical bonds in atoms and molecules. The NRC says there are no data to reliably estimate the occurrence of cancer following exposure to low doses and dose rates below about 100,000 microsieverts. But high doses are dangerous. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to five to 10 rems of radiation will alter a person's blood chemistry, while 55 rems will also bring on nausea. and fatigue. (One rem is equal to 10,000 microsieverts.) Vomiting and hair loss occur at 70 rem and 75 rem respectively, while exposure to 400 rem can mean possible death in two months. With even higher doses, the onset of death is quicker.

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Greenpeace workers at work
Doses of radiation in our daily life (in microsieverts): 1) 6,900 from a CT scan of the chest; 2) 4000 from an X-ray film mammogram or a year of living in high-altitude Denver; 2) 3000, the annual exposure of the average American from natural sources of radiation ; 3) 2000 annual exposure to radon in an average American home (more than half of the radiation Americans are exposed comes from radon, a gas made by the natural decay of soil, Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer); 4) 600 from a single stomach X-ray; 5) 200 from a round-trip Tokyo-New York flight. [Sources: the U.S. EPA; Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences]

Doses of radiation that can affect human health (in microsieverts per hour): 1) 10,000 to 20,000, the estimated radiation workers were exposed to who died in the 1999 accident at the Tokaimura fuel reprocessing plant; 2) 7,000 to 10,000, fatal in all cases; 3) 3,000 to 5,000, fatal with 60 days in half of cases that receive no medical treatment; 3) 500, blood cell production weaken; 4) 100, health damage risk increases. [Source: Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences]

The only precise data on radiation expose comes from studies of survivors of the nuclear blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It shows that exposure to 1,000 millisieverts of radiation per hour increases the chances of developing cancer by 150 percent. The lower the exposure, the lower the risk of cancer. About 28,000 people who were exposed to levels of up to 100 millisieverts were monitored over a 40-year period. About 4,400 of them developed cancer. This figure, however, is less than 2 percent--81 people--higher than the average for people who have not been exposed. There is almost no difference. Even nuclear experts are divided over the correlation between exposure to less than 100 millisieverts of radiation and higher risks of cancer. Because of this, the risk line is set at 100 millisieverts. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

But during emergencies, such as an accident at a nuclear power plant, this level is often increased. The Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan has said people should stay indoors if the annual radiation dose exceeds 10 mSV. The ICRP in 2007 issued an advisory saying the annual radiation limit for ordinary people can be raised to 20 mSv to 100 mSv during an emergency. The ICRP's suggestion of this temporary level is based on lessons learned from the Chernobyl disaster and other incidents. "Even if people are exposed to 20 mSv of radiation in a year, they wouldn't experience any symptoms such as nausea or burns. Raising the upper limit could increase the risk of cancer, but if there are other merits, such as avoiding the need to evacuate, it might be a feasible option," according to Yasuhito Sasaki, an executive director at the Japan Radioisotope Association. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

Radiation triggers the release of free radicals, trouble-making molecules that can attack cells throughout the body. Studies seem to suggest that consuming foods with large amounts free-radical fighting antioxidants reduces the damage caused by radiation. One small study of airline pilots---who are exposed to more radiation that ordinary folks---found that those who too k antioxidant supplements had less DNA cell damages than those who didn’t.

When in an area contaminated with radiation one should “Wear a hat and cover your nose and mouth with a wet towel or a mask.”

In Japan, a Long-Term Study on Radiation Leaks’ Effects

In October 2011, the Fukushima prefectural government began thyroid examinations for children in an effort to assess the health impact of the nuclear accident. The examinations will cover around 360,000 youths aged 18 or younger, Their health will be monitored for their lifetime. Radioactive iodine released from the damaged nuclear plant could accumulate in children's thyroid glands, raising the possibility of cancer.

On the first day of testing 150 children from some municipalities in the government-designated evacuation zone, such as Iitate Village and the Yamakiya district of Kawamata town, underwent ultrasound examinations for tumors or other problems at Fukushima Medical University. The results are expected to be mailed to them in about a month. Specific test results will not be made public. The prefectural government says it plans to have all the children examined by 2014. After that, it says the children will undergo a thyroid check every 2 years until they turn 20, and will be examined once every 5 years after that age.

Radiation, Iodine, Thyroid Cancer and Children

A few of the 70,000 victims of the Fukushima disaster showed at the the 2011 World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in November 2011 and gave riveting first-hand accounts of the devastating effects of radioactive contamination. According to the reports delivered by these eyewitnesses, nearly 300,000 Fukushima children continue to live in wretched conditions, continuously exposed to the dangers of radioactivity. [Source: New York Times]

The health hazards of radioactivity are far deadlier to children than the effects of radiation on adults. Radiation is more dangerous for infants because their cells are dividing more rapidly and radiation-damaged RNA may be carried in more generations of cells, Stephen Lincoln, a professor of chemistry at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, told Bloomberg. With cesium the risk for children depends on the quantity of radioactive cesium they consume or are exposed to, he said. If contaminated milk powder is consumed for only a few days, most of it will likely be eliminated within a month, he said. [Source: Kanoko Matsuyama and Yuriy Humber, Bloomberg, December 7, 2011]

Children and pregnant women are particularly sensitive to radioactive iodine, which can harm the thyroid, studies after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 have shown. According to research presented at a 2006 global conference, at least 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer among children have been linked to Chernobyl’s fallout. Several years after the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the incidence of thyroid cancer rose among local children. Local authorities have recognized only thyroid cancer as being caused by the nuclear accident. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, October 10, 2011; Yomiuri Shimbun, October 12, 2011]

The butterfly-shaped thyroid gland is located just below the Adam's apple and is attached to the trachea. The thyroid gland produces thyroid hormone by absorbing iodine, which is contained in foods such as kombu seaweed. If a person breathes in or absorbs radioactive iodine through food and drink, 10 to 30 percent of this iodine is said to accumulate in the thyroid. From about five years after the Chernobyl accident, an increasing number of children began to develop thyroid cancer. It is believed they fell ill because they consumed milk and other food contaminated with radioactive material. Before the accident, the chance of a child living in the vicinity of the nuclear power plant developing thyroid cancer was about one in a million per year. After the accident, however, at one point this incidence increased 100 fold--to about one in 10,000--in some areas.

According to surveys conducted by the United Nations and other organizations, 6,848 local residents who were younger than 18 years old at the time of the Chernobyl accident developed thyroid cancer over the 15 years from 1991 through 2005, of whom 15 were confirmed to have died. On the other hand, it is unclear whether adults have suffered from radioactive contamination of their thyroids, as there has been no apparent increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer among them.

However, some grown-ups who were exposed to radioactive material as children at the time of the accident have developed thyroid cancer. Because it is difficult to estimate how much radioactive material each resident was exposed to after the accident, experts are unable to agree on the level of exposure that would cause people to develop thyroid cancer. It is highly possible, therefore, that follow-up examinations of people affected by Chernobyl may yet reveal adverse effects.

Douglas Almond, a Columbia University economist, has done research that suggests that children in Sweden who were exposed, in utero, to low levels of radiation from Chernobyl “experienced significantly lower cognitive function” later in life. He wrote to New York Times to express concern about possibly inadequate warnings to pregnant women in Japan. Mr. Almond wrote: “Discussion of the likely public health impacts of nuclear crisis in Japan omit the evidence on developmental impacts, i.e. radiation exposure to pregnant women that damages the fetus and is not resolved/addressed by iodine supplementation. For this reason, we think pregnant women might be targeted for relocation/remaining indoors at greater distances from the reactors than the non-pregnant population.” [Source: Robert Mackey, New York Times March 16, 2011]

Thyroid Cancer, Children and the Fukushima Accident

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “In the case of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Prof. Shinichi Suzuki of Fukushima Medical University believes there is "a low probability" that local children will develop thyroid cancer. He cites restrictions being issued on drinking locally produced milk and tap water soon after they were found to have been contaminated with radioactive material beyond regulated standards as one factor supporting his views.

Suzuki's opinion is shared by Minoru Kamata, director emeritus at Suwa Central Hospital in Chino, Nagano Prefecture, who offered medical assistance in 1991 in areas hit by the Chernobyl accident. "However, those children who were outdoors just after the nuclear accident [at the Fukushima plant] will need to be checked for possible adverse reactions," he said.

Tatsuhiko Kodama, head of the University of Tokyo's Radioisotope Center, said it took 20 years for experts to prove that the Chernobyl accident caused the increase in thyroid cancer incidents among the local children. "Epidemiological studies alone take time [to prove a link between a disease and its cause]," he said. "And when we are able to confirm this link, it's usually too late to take countermeasures. "If more and more people in Fukushima Prefecture develop other types of cancers [apart from thyroid], we need to think of other measures, such as providing medical checkups to investigate possible damage to genes," Kodama said.

Thyroids of Fukushima Children Same As Other Children

Jiji Press reported: “Thyroid lumps detected in children in Fukushima Prefecture, home to the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, appear at almost the same rate as in children from three other prefectures, according to the Environment Ministry. In the survey, a total of 4,365 people aged between 3 and 18 in the three prefectures of Aomori, Yamanashi and Nagasaki underwent the same ultrasound examination being performed on children in Fukushima. The survey, conducted from November last year, found that 2,469 of them, or 56.6 percent, have lumps measuring 5 millimeters or smaller, or cysts of 20 millimeters or smaller in their thyroid glands in a status known as A2, the ministry said in a preliminary report Friday. Forty-four, or 1 percent, are in status B, having larger lumps or cysts that require further examination, the report said. No lumps or cysts were found in the remaining 1,852 children, it added. [Source: Jiji Press, March 10, 2013 ^^]

“The survey examined children in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture; Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture; and Nagasaki. Meanwhile, ultrasounds are being conducted by the Fukushima prefectural government on residents in the prefecture from newborns to those who were 18 years old at the outbreak of the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima plant. The results of the tests were available for about 130,000 people as of January, with the proportion of those classified as A2 and B coming to 41.2 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively. The ministry believes the figures were lower in Fukushima than in the other prefectures because the data in Fukushima covered children from newborns to the age of 2. The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant has released a massive amount of radioactive substances, including iodine, after being damaged in the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. Radioactive iodine tends to accumulate in the thyroid gland. ^^

Two Boys Found with High Internal Radiation Exposure

In October 2011, Kyodo reported: Two boys in Fukushima Prefecture have been internally exposed to the highest levels of radiation among the nearly 4,500 residents who were checked amid the nuclear crisis. The level of exposure is estimated to be equivalent to 3 millisieverts during their lifetime, which is not expected to harm their health, prefectural officials said. The local government has not disclosed the boys' exact ages, saying only that they are between 4 and 7 years old. [Source: Kyodo, japan-afterthebigearthquake.blogspot.com October 22, 2011]

Both boys are from the town of Futaba, which partly hosts the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. The two had the highest levels of internal exposure among 4,463 residents tested between June 27 and September 30 in 13 high-risk municipalities, the officials said. Among others tested, eight people measured 2 millisieverts, six registered 1 millisievert and the remaining 4,447 residents had less than 1 millisievert, they said.

They were tested with whole body counters at either the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in the city of Chiba or at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture. Estimates for adults were calculated to measure accumulated radiation exposure in the coming 50 years, and for children until they reach the age of 70.

Fukushima Radioactivity Found in Children's Urine

In November 2011, a medical consulting firm in Tokyo says radioactive material has been detected in the urine of 104 children in Fukushima Prefecture, the site of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. RHC JAPAN collected urine from children aged 6 or younger in Minamisoma City to check for possible internal exposure. Those checks were done at the request of parents of preschool children. Tests being carried out by local governments only cover elementary school students and older. Of 1,500 samples that have been analyzed so far, 7 percent contain radioactive cesium.

The levels of material detected were mostly between 20 and 30 becquerels per liter, slightly above the detection limit. The highest was 187 becquerels in the sample of a one-year-old boy. The firm says there has been no internal exposure that could affect human health. National Institute of Radiological Sciences Director Makoto Akashi says that although those test results need verification, they do point to the possibility of internal exposure in Fukushima children. He added that the level of internal exposure would not increase if one eats food tested for radioactivity.

Fukushima Radiation Limits and Kids

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John M. Glionna and Kenji Hall wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The parents were furious: Why, they demanded, had Japanese officials raised the acceptable level of radiation exposure for schoolchildren near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant? By upping the limit, children were allowed on playgrounds containing higher levels of radioactivity than had been permitted before the nearby atomic plant was damaged by the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the parents said. Although it may be impossible to rid the air of dangerous isotopes, they said, the ground is a different matter. [Source: John M. Glionna and Kenji Hall, Los Angeles Times, June 14, 2011]

“At a government-convened meeting here parents demanded that authorities reinstate stricter radioactivity standards and begin stripping the top layer of soil off contaminated playgrounds. But officials stood their ground. And in a nation where polite public discourse is the norm, the dialogue quickly turned hostile. A woman in the front row cut off one spokesman: "In the playground, in the sandbox, children put dirt into their mouths! They breathe in the dust! You should do the same! Lick the dirt!" she shouted to applause. “You wouldn't do this to your own kids!?" [Ibid]

“Under the new guidelines, the government set the upper limit of safe radiation exposure for children at 20 millisieverts per year, from 1 millisievert previously. Later, Japan's Education Ministry pulled an about-face, announcing plans to return exposure limits for children at school to 1 millisievert a year. Officials said they would also cover the cost of removing the surface soil from schoolyards where the limit is exceeded.” "We have taken the measure so children and their parents can feel relieved," Education Minister Yoshiaki Takaki said at a news conference. [Ibid]

“Scientists say a cumulative dose of 500 millisieverts of radiation increases the risk of cancer and that children in the region of the plant consequently face a particularly high risk over the course of their lifetimes. The government's initial raising of the exposure limit for schoolchildren prompted one key nuclear adviser to quit in protest.” At times fighting back tears, Toshio Kosako, a professor at the University of Tokyo and an expert on radiation exposure, told reporters in late April that he was against what he considered inappropriate radiation limits. "I cannot allow this as a scholar," said Kosako, who was appointed by Prime Minister Naoto Kan. "I feel the government response has been merely to bide time." [Ibid]

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Iodine releases

In recent weeks, doctors and environmental groups had also weighed in with criticism. Physicians for Social Responsibility, a U.S. nonprofit, blasted as "unconscionable" Japan's radiation standards at schools in Fukushima prefecture. David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, another U.S. nonprofit, said the current danger was real. "If I were a parent of a child in school there, I wouldn't be happy either," he said. "The new limits do not mean that a child will develop leukemia in the next year, but it does pose an elevated risk." [Ibid]

“As the debate raged, some cities took matters into their own hands. In Koriyama city, 40 miles west of the stricken nuclear plant, officials found high radiation levels on playgrounds at many schools. They hired bulldozers to scrape the top layer of soil from playgrounds at 67 day care centers, elementary schools and junior high schools. The move lowered radiation levels by 40 percent to 90 percent, according to results posted on the city's website. "We decided not to wait for guidance from the central government," said Hiroshi Nozaki, a Koriyama board of education official.” [Ibid]

On May 23, hundreds of demonstrators braved a steady drizzle in Tokyo to protest the government's policy, holding signs that said "The government kills people" and "Adults are responsible." Afterward, in a hallway at a government ministry where the protesters gathered, Saori Kanzawa tended to her daughter Riko, a 4-year-old with pins holding her bangs and Little Mermaid socks. The family had fled Koriyama for Tokyo, worried about radiation from the damaged plant. "Had we stayed at home, we would have had to tell Riko that she can't go to this park or play on that slide," said Kanzawa, 32. "It's impossible to know how the radiation would affect Riko in the next five to 10 years or longer. She may want to have children in the future, and as parents we have to do everything we can to limit her risk of radiation exposure." [Ibid]

Impact of Fukushima Radiation on One Japan’s Most Beautiful Towns

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: When the government finally released a map of the fallout, it became clear that some of the heaviest concentrations were in the tiny village of Iitate (pop. 6,200), twenty-five miles northwest of the plant. Less than a year earlier, it had been named one of “Japan’s 100 Most Beautiful Villages.” It was given an official order to evacuate at the end of May. When I stopped by, on the day before the deadline, a traffic light was blinking without a soul around. At the village hall, where moving companies had taped their phone numbers to the windows, Vice-Mayor Shinichi Monma, born and reared in the town, was maintaining an air of crisp efficiency. “Unfortunately,” he said, “our residents were irradiated.”

When the oldest man in town---a hundred and two years old---heard the news, he killed himself, rather than flee, the papers reported. In front of the village hall, a machine that looked like an oversized parking meter flashed a real-time radiation reading in large red digits: 7.71 microsieverts . . . 8.12 . . . 7.57. Being there was equivalent to receiving a chest X-ray every twelve hours. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, October 17, 2011]

In addition to its beauty, Iitate was known for its beef. Now the villagers had to kill their cows---nearly three thousand of them. Nobody wanted to see pictures of them wandering, skinny and abandoned, like the animals in some other evacuated towns. To guard against looters, the villagers had agreed to take turns patrolling in the months ahead. Village leaders were saying that they expected to return to their homes within two years. But the vice-mayor conceded to me, “There’s nothing to back that up; it’s just for the villagers’ morale. If people are told it will be more than two years, they might never come back.” The central government avoided making any predictions, but five months after the quake it acknowledged that areas within three kilometres of the plant will likely be uninhabitable for decades.

Impact of Fossil Fuels Versus Impact of Nuclear Power

Robert Peter Gale and Eric Lax wrote in Bloomberg, “Japan has few domestic energy resources and depends on imports for about 85 percent of its energy. What price will the country pay if it abandons nuclear energy and uses only fossil fuels? Air pollution from coal-fired power plants causes about 500 times more deaths per unit of electricity produced than radiation from nuclear plants does. Electricity produced from oil isn’t much safer. Even natural gas causes about 60 times more deaths than nuclear does because of pollution. And consider that more than 100,000 coal miners died in the U.S. in the past century and more than 6,000 die every year in China.[Source: Robert Peter Gale & Eric Lax, Bloomberg, March 10, 2013. Robert Peter Gale, a visiting professor of hematology at Imperial College London, has for 30 years been involved in the global medical response to nuclear and radiation accidents. Eric Lax is a writer and author of “Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know.”<+>]

“If, in response to Fukushima, Japan switches to more fossil fuels, the resulting carbon dioxide emissions, greenhouse gases and global warming could affect all of us. Already, because of the nuclear shutdown since the accident, there is no longer any chance Japan will meet its commitments in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from 1990 levels by 25 percent by 2020. The country’s 2012 estimate for greenhouse gases is about 1.3 billion tons, the most since 2007, making Japan the fifth top emitter worldwide. <+>

Image Sources: TEPCO and Greenpeace Japan

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, Mainichi Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated November 2013

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