For My Young Friend Who Is Going to Japan

You might want to think about having your Japanese friends come over here, instead. It would be a kindness.You’re young; a premie baby or cancer 10 years from now is a lot more threatening for you than for us old geezers. Granted, Kyoto is a long way from Fukushima, but Seattle is even farther. It just depends on the winds.

Fukushima has been dropped from the news, but it’s not over — it’s not even under control. It’s “stable.” Except, of course, that last Friday Reactor 3 suddenly got too “hot” to send workers in even for short times — that’s new. So, it isn’t even stable, unless you’re a nuc-industry flack.

Reactor 3 at Fukushima was using MOX fuel, which contains plutonium. There has been a meltdown and release of plutonium/uranium fuel. This has never happened before. Plutonium was only a by-product in Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. No one really knows what will be the outcome.

On March 17, this appeared in EETimes (Electronic Engineering Times, not a peer-reviewed journal, but usually pro-nuke.): 

“. . .with plutonium inside reactor No. 3, if it melts down or explodes, then even microscopic quantities of particulate will cause lung cancer in anyone who inhales it. The whole area will have to be cordoned off.”

On March 14, there was a “minor” explosion in Reactor 3. Fuel rods were found 1 1/2 miles from the reactor. On Friday, the Japanese government has finally admitted that Reactor 3 melted down some time ago, and even worse, has now melted through the pressure vessel. Plutonium, cesium-137, and radioactive iodine are being released in the steam from the boiling water in the containment vessels, and being blown all over Japan.

According to the Telegraph,

. . . reported in the Yomiuri newspaper, which described a “melt-through” as being “far worse than a core meltdown” and “the worst possibility in a nuclear accident.”

Melt-downs of the fuel in the No. 2 and No. 3 reactors followed . . . with the molten fuel collecting at the bottom of the pressure vessels before burning through and into the external steel containment vessels.

And, as has been the case in every nuclear accident since the 1950’s, including Fukushima up to this point, all we really know is that it has always been worse than was admitted at any time.

What’s the risk?

You will read a lot of irrelevant talk about “background radiation.”  This is of no importance in determining long-term disease risk. In both Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, people got diseases even though the background radiation was barely higher than before the accidents.

These diseases may have been caused by “hot particles,” microscopic dust made of pieces of fuel rod and other radioactives. Right now, people in Tokyo and Seattle are breathing in about 5 – 10 hot particles a day from Fukushima. Since the hot particles cling to lung tissue, they radiate the cells immediately around them on a continuous basis for a long time. So, even if the background radiation isn’t so very high, the radiation levels for those cells is up in the dangerous range. Plutonium hot particles are especially radiotoxic.

 Talking about background radiation when you’re hosting “hot particles”  is like telling you the room temperature is fine when you have a burning coal in your pants.

No one has financed or published much data about hot particles, and even less about plutonium, which isn’t found in natural hot particles nor in previous disasters. Very preliminary studies indicate that a plutonium hot particle has about a 1/2000 chance of causing a cancer. Assuming the 10 particle/day rate includes 3 plutonium hot particles from MOX fuel, then after 30 days exposure, the odds of eventually developing a lung cancer are about 1/200. Of course, the other hot particles are hardly benign, but plutonium is the big question mark.

Most post-disaster studies have only looked for leukemia, solid-body cancers, and mutations in offspring. Leukemia shows up only after 5-10 year latency, and solid-body cancers after 10-20 years — but most studies end after 5 years, before the latency is over. Epidemiological studies of non-cancer diseases (such as immune suppression, or premature/underweight babies) typically don’t get much financing — in fact, one of the researchers was jailed.

The other source of long-term damage is contaminated food. Cesium-137, which has a long life, tends to concentrate in the muscles (esp. the heart) and in the placenta. Most of the post-disaster studies focus on radioactive iodine, which has a fairly short life.

I am deeply fearful for the Japanese, especially their young people, and for you if you go there.


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