Radiation Exposure Risk -- How Scared Should We Be?

fukushima explosion nuclearAlright, I'm no nuclear scientist (obviously), but I am interested in understanding to the best of my ability what's happening in Japan. After the latest news of a third explosion and a fire at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, broader evacuations, and high levels of radiation being detected, aren't we all wondering what this means, especially in terms of radiation exposure?

Read on for a simplified overview on radiation exposure and its risks, from a laywoman's point of view.


I have to say, right up front, that I breathed easier upon hearing the assessment by Andre-Claude Lacoste, chairman of the Autorite de Surete Nucleaire, at a briefing in Paris. He said, "This isn’t a nuclear catastrophe; it’s a very serious accident."

Of course, that doesn't mean it's nothing to worry about, but it makes it feel less, I don't know, catastrophic.

So what is radiation? And is all radiation created equally?

Epidemiologist Joseph Mangano explained to the NY Daily News:

  • Natural forms of radiation occur in soil and rocks.
  • We also receive radiation through dental x-rays or CAT scans. 
  • The harmful kind of radiation is created in a nuclear reactor when the atom is split, which creates high levels of heat that produce electricity, energy, and also nuclear waste and unstable and harmful radioactive isotopes. These nuclear waste particles can cause cell mutation and cancer.     

What are the risks of prolonged radiation exposure?

  • Cancer
  • Birth defects
  • Infant death

Who is at risk?

  • At this time, mostly the workers at the affected plant face higher risks due to prolonged exposures.
  • The general public shouldn't be in danger, explains NPR's science guy Jon Hamilton, as most of the radiation releases have not been enough to cause any health problems.

Is low-level exposure to radiation harmful?

  • No level of exposure to this type of radiation is safe; however, risks increase the longer a person is exposed to the radiation whether via inhalation, skin absorption, and food and water contamination. 

Could Fukushima be Three Mile Island? Another Chernobyl?

Nuclear accidents, as ranked by the International Atomic Energy Agency:

  • Level Five - Three Mile Island partial meltdown
  • Level Six - 2011 Fukushima accident
  • Level Eight - 1986 Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine

Jon Hamilton at NPR says that experts do not expect Fukushima to turn into another Chernobyl. The nuclear reactor at Chernobyl was out of control and resulted in a massive explosion that put huge amounts of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. At Fukushima, cores could melt or, worse case scenario, they might melt through the containment structure and into the ground. But we're not talking about a huge explosion that would put radiation into the air.

Not so fast though. A meltdown does have the potential to cause larger repercussions. Frank von Hippel, a nuclear physicist at Princeton University, tells the Christian Science Monitor:

This is definitely in the Chernobyl league now. If the reactors go, that's bad, of course. But the real concern at this point is if those ... spent-fuel pools catch fire. There are many Chernobyls' worth of radioactive material in there.

And what about us here in U.S.? Are we at any risk?

Nuclear Regulatory Commission head Gregory Jaczko says:

Based on the type of reactor design and the nature of the accident we see a very low likelihood, really a very low probability that there’s any possibility of harmful radiation levels in the United States or in Hawaii, or in any other U.S. territories.

Does this information make you feel better or worse about the nuclear plant accidents at Fukushima?


Image via YouTube

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