My only ‘exposure’ to nuclear radiation is limited to a book review on ‘The Radioactive Boy Scout’ and jokes about growing an additional arm after the questionably high chemical levels in the Iowa City river where I went to undergraduate.
When I heard about the nuclear plant crisis in Fukushima earlier this week, bad montages from Erin Brockovich zipped through my mind. That is why I was so fortunate to attend a session with Jim Martin, former professor in radiological health sciences, and Kim Kearfott, leading expert in nuclear engineering and radiological sciences. They both agreed to attend an EHS Principles of Risk Assessment course, and I got to listen in.
Smoke is seen rising from one of the reactors at stricken power plant in Fukushima, Japan– Photo Herald Sun, derived AP
“I am pleased to be talking to an audience who is interested in what is actually going on instead of those who want the next spin on this scenario,” rasped a hoarse Kearfott. Apparently the media is very intrigued in what is happening/will happen in Japan, and she has been taking quite a few phone interviews. Let’s take a peek at a few of the facts and summaries of a few questions and answers.
What exactly happened and is happening?
We do not have a clear idea about what is going on, because it is changing rapidly, hourly. This nuclear power plant had emergency procedures in place for an earthquake 1/10 of what happened in Japan. The nuclear power plant has fuel in the reactors that gets very hot, and a continuous stream of water that runs by the heated fuel and carries the heat away. This fuel is designed to work in such a way that it will cool on its own if there are no continuing chain reactions. When the earthquake hit, the plant shut down (as it was designed to do) and emergency power went on. However, then the tsunami hit as well, and power was completely knocked out. Of the 8 reactors, we’re having problems with 3. The combination of 2 natural disasters is what caused this issue. There is such a focus on the melting reactor, but I keep thinking of the devastation. I hope that this situation won’t completely detract from the loss.
What are the implications of the power being knocked out?
At this point, the nuclear reactor cannot cool on its own because there has been some melting of the fuel—meaning that without people cooling it using water, it wouldn’t work. It would heat up and could rupture the rod. It is not cool enough yet, which is the problem. They want to prevent more melting from occurring, prevent hydrogen explosions.
Is the area safe?
It is difficult for the press to understand uncertainties like Public Health students can do … for press it is either ‘safe’ or ‘not’ … but the reality is that it depends. There are about 50 workers right now on site, and possibly other military personnel trying to contain the situation. Protection efforts such as time, distance, shielding, and decontamination are being put in place. The time factor would be minimizing amount of time that the given worker is in a particular location where doses are high. In longer term, robots are used. Workers are using poles to stay distant. Limits they have announced for the current workers has been elevated to 5x the normal occupational limit, but ¼ of what you would need to see any radiation effects. If they use safe practices, they should be fine.
Finally, is there any concern of exposure in food and contamination, or the air? Are there worries about contamination in the food chain?
Dr. Martin was pretty optimistic about this issue. He said they are doing heroic things to get the heat and emissions of the nuclear reactor stopped. Once they can get cooling back on, releases will go very well. It will take billions of dollars to clean up. However, the primary risk is to the workers getting pretty hefty radiation doses. We should definitely monitor foodstuffs. Whether food contamination occurs depends on actual amount of radioactivity released, depends on where it goes, and depends on if it is on agricultural land. It is the responsibility of public health professionals to monitor this.
Thank you once again to Jim Martin and Kim Kearfott. More information is available from the UM Risk Science Center.