Should we be worried about Japan’s radioactive reach?


Margaret Coulombe

An article in the New York Times by reporter Henry Fountain examines the impact of Japan’s nuclear plight and the potential impacts of the release of radioactivity into the atmosphere. The article examines the present scenario in Japan and compares it to the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents in 1986, and 1979. “We are in uncharted territory,” the article quotes Robert Alvarez as saying. Alvarez is a nuclear expert and former advisor to the secretary of energy in the Clinton administration.

The Times article continues, with an interview with Kenneth Mossman, a professor of health physics in ASU’s School of Life Sciences. Mossman has studied radiation for more than 40 years. He describes the example of Chernobyl as the “upper bounds” of what could happen in Japan, but only if “there is a breach of containment and a significant release of radioactivity.”

Mossman goes on to say that under Cherynobyl-like conditions (should this come to pass in Japan), that “The impact of the radiation would be twofold. Workers would be at risk for illness or death because of high levels of gamma rays and other ionizing radiation. But the area around the plant would become a no-man’s land, contaminated with radioactive elements like cesium, plutonium and iodine.” 

In other more regional news, concerns about radioactivity release into the atmosphere spawned fears that radiation could impact other regions of the world, such as the U.S. In Arizona, Fox News, out of Prescott, Ariz., spoke with Mossman about how Valley stores were selling out of potassium iodide pills and Geiger counters. Mossman assured people that “there is no reason to rush out and buy potassium iodide tablets, and in some cases, people can actually hurt themselves by taking them.”

The Fox article goes on to quote Mossman as saying: "The thing you have to be aware of, there's natural occurring radioactive material. The Geiger counters going to pick that up and unless people are trained in how to use Geiger counters and until they understand what a reading means they can very well misinterpret what they're getting as something emanating from Japan that just heightens their fears even more."

"The distance from Japan to western U.S. is thousands of miles. So if there is radioactive material released, that material would have to be transported by the jet stream across thousands of miles, which would be subject to a substantial dilution, so by the time anything got to the United States it would be so diluted it wouldn't cause any public health effect," Professor Mossman continues.

To read the full Fox News article online: