How bad is the nuclear threat in Japan?
A woman is scanned Thursday at a radiation screening center in Koriyama, Japan, 37 miles from the stricken nuclear plant.
March 17th, 2011
11:18 AM ET

How bad is the nuclear threat in Japan?

Experts cannot agree on how dangerous Japan's nuclear crisis is.

The International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale ranks incidents from Level 1, which indicates very little danger to the general population, to Level 7, a "major accident" with a large release of radioactive material and widespread health and environmental effects.

"It's clear we are at Level 6, that's to say we're at a level in between what happened at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl," Andre-Claude Lacoste, president of France's nuclear safety authority, told reporters Tuesday.

"This is not going to end well," said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and author of "Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats. "At the very least, we're going to have a very expensive mess to clean up, and the worst is that we spread radioactive particles across hundreds or thousands of square miles of Japan."

As an indication of what it thinks of the danger, the U.S. military will not allow troops to get within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the damaged plant. The Japanese government has told people to evacuate to at least 20 kilometers (12 miles) away from the damaged reactors.

Governments of other countries are taking precautions and conducting thorough inspections of food from Japan, looking for radioactive contamination.

"The concerns I have are for the workers in the plant," said Greg Evans, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Toronto. "They are putting in a very heroic effort, and there is the potential that they are being exposed to high levels of radiation because of their efforts to maintain and to control the accident that's occurring. And to be blunt, it is a very serious accident.

"However, outside the plant, the releases so far have not been excessive in terms of health. ... They've evacuated to 20 kilometers, which seems like a very reasonable precaution."

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent, said his radiation exposure had quadrupled in the 36 hours he'd been in Tokyo, but said that amount was about what he would normally be exposed to every year anyway.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said radiation levels had spiked after an explosion and fire Tuesday at the Fukushima Daiichi plant's fourth reactor, but he later told reporters that readings at the plant's gate had returned to a level that would not cause "harm to human health."

But Glenn Sjoden, a professor of nuclear engineering at Georgia Tech in the United States, told CNN that the radiation levels were extremely serious.

"Things have dramatically changed in the last few days. Initially they were recording slightly elevated levels at the site boundary because they were venting small pumps from the buildings to release pressure.

"The situation is very different now as a fraction of the core has melted, releasing some fission products to the atmosphere as they continue to relieve the pressure in the system."

Dr. Ritsuko Komaki, a radiation oncologist with the University of Texas' M.D. Anderson Cancer Center said the real concern lies with long-term effects of radiation, which can cause cancers such as leukemia years after exposure.

"I am very concerned about the babies and the children who are growing up in the area (of the stricken plant)," said Komaki, who was 2 years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on her hometown of Hiroshima in 1945. "They have to be maybe evacuated far away."

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Filed under: Earthquake • Food • Health • Japan • Natural Disasters • Nuclear • Science
soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. C.i.a petreus afghanistan defeat

    word on the street is petreus and companies are on the run..running scared after an illegal occupation. They could join up with ghaddafi for some rest and relaxation. Running scared.. Sounds very american.

    March 17, 2011 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
    • chloe vanbuskirk

      think about wind farms. seriously.
      chloe vanbuskirk

      March 17, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • My Low Cost PC project on IndieGoGo ---

      why don't use these firefighter ships to send a continuous flow of water atop of the Fukushima's nuclear plant buildings?

      March 17, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Recipe Chefs

    Thanks for sharing this post. I really enjoy reading your blog. Feel free to check out our recipes.

    March 17, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Maado

      So, Editor, now you are conflating risk of aenccr' with deaths from radiation'? Sort of like if you get some radiation from a nuclear reactor, you will get aenccr and you will then die from aenccr? And if anyone dies from aenccr, a nuclear reactor caused it?I agree that we know radiation can cause aenccr. But people get aenccr at a high level of incidence in the general population without any additionl exposure to radiation above natural levels. The UNSCEAR report you so want to bury simply states the obvious that sifting out cases of aenccr caused by the higher than normal exposure to low radiation doses caused by Chernoyl from the many more cases occurring naturally is not scientific, because of unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions .I see no problem with going with the science even if you say it's an audit. Audits deal with facts. The studies you promote deal with unverified projections (guesses) and worst of all, emotion. The audit, as you call it, was completed decades after the accident so if it couldn't find a good proportion of the millions of projected dead in that time, where are they? Still living and largely unaffected by their exposure?We will be doomed to repeat at every nice round number anniversary of Chernobyl the left's fantasy that this accident killed far more than it did so they can evade the obvious benefits of safe, clean nuclear generated electricity. In any case, we know coal kills in far greater numbers but everyone still uses it because, on balance, the benefits outweigh the costs. Independent Australia would be well advised to publish articles putting a variety of viewpoints, not just the left's. I nevertheless appreciate that debate is allowed to flow more freely these days on these pages.

      March 13, 2012 at 2:51 am | Report abuse |
  3. Joann Flores

    Oh my god we in the united states shuld we take sum prcautions as medication not allow r children to play kids with astma r they more at risk please respond I am mother of two young childre 5 and 3 one with astma

    March 17, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  4. angela

    Omg. There are breaking news updates from all of our american news sources and they all have different views. Report the damn facts not what u think

    March 17, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
  5. biglips

    Omg! my weener is leaking green puss! oh thats cuz its st patricks day!

    March 17, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Sees All Evil

    @Ciapetreusafghanistanblablah speaking of running you have a raging case of azzholism which can only be stopped by removing your head from your anis. Here's to America and the battles she's won to the red,white and blue baby we Never RUN!

    March 17, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
  7. banasy

    @My peeps:
    I'm not upset; I don't care! No worries! 😉

    March 17, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  8. ed Bailey

    The ships have a limited range and the crews would be coated with domnwinders glow stuff. Wanna volunteer??? Never have to use a nightlight again!

    March 17, 2011 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Bill

    Doesn't any one
    Ever say any thing nIce to say on these blogs ?

    March 18, 2011 at 12:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Warda

      The analogy seems fair to me. It is not by any means easy to bcmoee a driver, or to be kept safe on the road. There is a year long apprenticeship program called the learner's permit (where close supervision is mandated). Sometimes people are shown an educational film and enroll in classes to bcmoee better educated on the risks. You need to qualify by showing minimal competence, and also past a written test (indicating you understand the rules of the road). Driver's licenses are required to authorize you to operate a vehicle (and you need a more advanced test and permit to operate a motorcycle, transport a large group of people in a bus, or operate a semi trailer truck). And you can't just step into any junket and drive in any manner you wish. Cars are engineered with safety in mind, crash tested, and meet very strict criteria for durability, drivability, and passive safety. My car has to be inspected on an annual basis (and I don't pass inspection if service lights are activated). City planning plays a role, and hundreds to thousands of engineers and specialists design roadways, traffic control signals, set speed limits, share space with pedestrians and cyclists, add in energy attenuation devices (guard rails, wide grassy areas, sand barrels), set up medians to protect against head-on collisions, and a great deal more (this is just a start). And we send into this space of risk and danger a mobile contingent of highly trained professionals to maintain a watchful vigilance over the entire system and protect the interests of the public: police men and women who enforce the rules of the road, EMTs who swoop in to take care of anybody in need (with well equipped hospitals on the stand by), first responders (fire and wrecking crews), and increasingly helicopter and video surveillance (to keep everything working smoothly). It's actually a very heavily regulated system, costly, demanding on human resources, and is something that people work very hard to study and improve everyday.To suggest we just allow people to move into an area, and then free our hands of responsibility over their personal safety, environmental standards, infrastructure and service needs, and a great deal more … rationalized on the basis that life is risky, does not seem like a very carefully thought out policy to me, it sounds like anarchy!

      March 12, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Kirill Kobelev

    Anderson, maybe you will read this (dear moderator, please, forward).

    I have good education in physics and I know what I am saying. What I see on CNN these days sounds a bit confusing. Several times it was stated that "nuclear reaction was shut down completely". This is not fully true. Using cadmium rods and boron you can stop decay of uranium and/or plutonium. But when uranium/plutonion decays, it is not disappearing. It produces other 2-3 atoms. Some of these resulting atoms are stable, some of them (say 30%) are radioactive with periods of stability from seconds to years. These atoms stay inside the rods and decay over the time. Here are 2 important points: 1. There is no way stop or prevent this type of decay. 2. This decay generates HEAT and alpha/beta/gamma radiation. This means that the reactor itself and rods in the pool are generating heat now and will be generating heat for months (with decrasing intensity).

    I think this point should be explained to the public because reasonably thinking, imagine you have red hot metal rod and you simply put it on the floor. In an hour it will be not red, in 3 hours not that hot. Tomorrow it will have the room temperature. TV shows different picture. For a there are clouds of steam without signs of decreasing intensity. People are asking themselves: How this can happen? Who is not telling the truth? Do they understand what is going on?

    The correct answer and true picture is that some nuclear reactions are stopped, but some of them are unstoppable. These unstoppable nuclear reactions generate heat, evaporate water, cause chemical reactions that generate hydrogen, etc.

    Good explanation to the public would be that these unstoppable reactions will go with decreasing intensity for weeks and months. During this time more and more water should be added. This is what is going on.

    I see several other misleading points and "obvious unanswered questions" but I am afraid that my post is already too long.


    March 18, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
  11. RenoDeano

    The true extent of the reactor and fuel damage will not be know for a few days after they restore power to the complexes and system are recalibrate. Then accurate temperatures, RX coolant samples and radiation measurements are gathered. Everything else is speculation based on external dose and gamma spec measurements (which in themselves can tell a lot, but not the whole truth.)

    March 18, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Randy

    I'm anti-nuclear power it is not safe and there is no way to safely dispose of the tons of nuclear waste/spent fuel rods I've been hearing that it can't happen to us but the fact is it can no extra poison on any level is good for us this poison will sterilize the ground for 600 years is that good ? and hoping that the winds carry it out to sea instead of inland is that not polluting our sea life/food ? there are better methods of retrieving power by renewable sources has not the tsunami shown us the power of water. our first sawmills was powered by water miners washed mountains away by water with no pumps has not the great thinkers have any common sense if I need to come engineer it I will if we harness the power off a average size river we will have clean renewable power sincerely Randy Bolin La Veta Colorado.

    March 19, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • hptech

      ignorance is bliss

      April 8, 2011 at 12:58 am | Report abuse |
  13. Rona H.

    Seriously, this has got to stop. If there was such thing as a 'shut down' dont you think it wouldnt be having the problems that its having now? The goverment is lieing, hell what else is new? I don't see why their not telling the truth in the first place. Do they not understand that lieing, then later finding out the truth and knowing the fact that people lied in the first place will freak them out more then being blunt honest? How are we supposed to trust the goverment let alone, another human being when things like this happen? And dumping radioactive waste into the ocean isnt smart either it doesnt take a rocket scientest to know that so question is, how far is that radioactive waste gonna get? What will it effect and what other humans around the world will it affect also? Noone cares about nobody but themselves these days.

    March 21, 2011 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
    • hptech

      please learn to spell, then go back to the fourth grade and finish your education. thank you and have a wonderful day.

      April 8, 2011 at 1:00 am | Report abuse |
  14. Keith Hecht

    Thanks, A very useful information .

    September 19, 2013 at 1:46 am | Report abuse |