Japan/US Radiation Dose Perspective

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As the human tragedy of Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami continues to unfold, a world level paranoia is being maintained regarding the effects of a limited area containing four significantly damaged nuclear reactors.   Yes, this is a serious industrial event and radioactive materials are outside of expected containment.  But it needs a bit of perspective on risk to we mortal humans and pales to insignificance compared to the tens of thousands of expected deaths from the tsunami itself.

The ability of scientists to detect and measure radioactive materials in minute quantities is remarkable.   In order to detect nuclear bomb testing and support the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the US government directed scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratories to build ultra-sensitive systems which collect and filter very large volumes of air to obtain a few indicators of events from halfway round the world.  These systems are in use coincidentally with the Japan event.  They were not available during the Chernobyl reactor event.

Early results are in.  The system works!  Almost too well.  Minute quantities of airborne radioactive gases have been detected.  In addition, similar levels of the 8 day half-life radio-iodine have been detected by sampling large volumes of milk using concentrative methods developed since Chernobyl.

Washington Radiation Dosimetry Comparison - Seattle Times, March 25, 2011

Washington Radiation Dosimetry Comparison - Seattle Times, March 25, 2011

On March 25, 2011, the Seattle Times provided a synopsis of the early results. The graph shown here is from that issue and shows how small the impact and risk really is to the United States.  That which is shown from the Japan event is expected to disappear within a few weeks of stabilization of the reactor situation.

These results confirm this author’s lack of concern about rushing out and buying the iodide tablets supported by the US Surgeon General.  Of course, other more knowledgeable government officials and scientists subsequently contradicted her recommendation.

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3 comments to Japan/US Radiation Dose Perspective

  • Bill Farris

    Has anyone compared the levels detected from this incident to those noted during the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb detonations and the subsequent atmospheric nuclear detonations in the 50s?

  • admin

    IMHO, the current event will take some time to sort out and compare to literature references. As noted in the post, the ultra-low detection capability for worldwide airborne was mostly developed post 9/11. The airborne from the Chernobyl event was seen with standard workplace and ambient worker protection sampling and was definitely detected at Hanford. In fact, it was quite easy. Current event is taking significant measures for detection. Longer lived isotopes such as uranium and plutonium will need to be sorted out of the background that is in the world cities’ soils and referenced in some literature from the late 1960s and related to atmospheric testing. Cesium-137 has been reported in wood ash from north-eastern US fireplace concentrations several times in the ’80s and ’90s of 20th century and assumed from testing fallout.

  • The worst thing about the Japan tsunami is the fear that it has created over nuclear power! Nuclear energy is far cleaner then fossil flues and less detrimental to the landscape and ecosystem as damns.

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