Are We In Danger of Radioactive Exposure from the Japanese Nuclear Leaks? → Washingtons Blog
Are We In Danger of Radioactive Exposure from the Japanese Nuclear Leaks? - Washingtons Blog

Monday, March 14, 2011

Are We In Danger of Radioactive Exposure from the Japanese Nuclear Leaks?

If we could rely on the Japanese and American governments to inform us of any danger, we wouldn't have to be so vigilant.

But given the American government's cover up of the severity of the BP oil disaster, the health risk to New Yorkers after 9/11, and numerous other health issues, we will have to educate and empower ourselves.

As ABC News notes, experts says that Japan has a long history of nuclear cover-ups.

The New York Times points out:
The different radioactive materials being reported at the nuclear accidents in Japan range from relatively benign to extremely worrisome.

The central problem in assessing the degree of danger is that the amounts of various radioactive releases into the environment are now unknown, as are the winds and other atmospheric factors that determine how radioactivity will disperse around the stricken plants.

BBC reports (scroll down on left side):
Japanese engineer Masashi Goto, who helped design the containment vessel for Fukushima's reactor core, says the design was not enough to withstand earthquakes or tsunami ...
Indeed, Goto said:
“It is difficult to say, but that would be a core meltdown. If the rods fall and mix with water, the result would be an explosion of solid material like a volcano spreading radioactive material. Steam or a hydrogen explosion caused by the mix would spread radioactive waste more than 50km. Also, this would be multiplied. There are many reactors in the area so there would be many Chernobyls.
And Goto accused the Japanese government of deliberately withholding vital information that would allow outside experts help solve the problems:
For example, there has not been enough information about the hydrogen being vented. We don’t know how much was vented and how radioactive it was.

The former editor of the Japan Times - Yoichi Shimatsu - states that after a high-level government meeting, “Japanese agencies are no longer releasing independent reports without prior approval from the top,” and that censorship of what is really occurring at the plant is being overseen under the Article 15 Emergency Law.France is also accusing Japan of downplaying the nuclear threat.

And Haarertz notes:

Since the Japanese government has not provided accurate information regarding the possible threat posed by the explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, experts in Israel and abroad are divided on the scope of the disaster and the ramifications for the environment.

How Bad?

How bad is Japan's nuclear crisis?

It's hard to tell.

There are currently 3 Japanese nuclear reactors experiencing meltdown (and all 3 have exploded), and at least 3 more are in trouble.

The "Hail Mary" efforts to use seawater to cool the reactors has failed.

And even the Japanese government is now talking about damage to core containment structures. As MSN notes:

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters that "damage appears on the suppression pool" -- the bottom part of the container, which contains water used to cool down the reactor and control air pressure inside.

"But we have not recorded any sudden jump in radiation indicators," Edano said without elaborating.

If confirmed, it will be the first direct damage to the reactor since a massive earthquake and tsunami battered Japan's northeast coast on Friday, knocking out nuclear plants in Fukushima, north of Tokyo.

Kyodo News is reporting higher radiation levels North of Tokyo after the blast at reactor number 2.

In addition, the Christian Science Monitor notes that peculiar design of the Fukushima reactors may mean that spent fuel rods release far more radiation than the reactors themselves:

A particular feature of the 40-year old General Electric Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor model – such as the six reactors at the Fukushima site – is that each reactor has a separate spent-fuel pool. These sit near the top of each reactor and adjacent to it, so that cranes can remove spent fuel from the reactor and deposit it in a swimming-pool-like concrete structure near the top of the reactor vessel, inside each reactor building.

If the hydrogen explosions damaged those pools – or systems needed to keep them cool – they could become a big problem. Keeping spent-fuel pools cool is critical and could potentially be an even more severe problem than a reactor meltdown, some experts say. If water drains out, the spent fuel could produce a fire that would release vast amounts of radioactivity, nuclear experts and anti-nuclear activists warn.

"There should be much more attention paid to the spent-fuel pools," says Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear engineer and president of the anti-nuclear power Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "If there's a complete loss of containment [and thus the water inside], it can catch fire. There's a huge amount of radioactivity inside – far more than is inside the reactors. The damaged reactors are less likely to spread the same vast amounts of radiation that Chernobyl did, but a spent-fuel pool fire could very well produce damage similar to or even greater than Chernobyl."

But another scientist said while the spent-fuel pools have capacity for high volumes of radioactive material, the amount of fuel currently in the spent-fuel pool might be less than widely believed, based on data he has seen showing only about as much spent fuel in the vulnerable pool as contained in the reactor.

"The inventory numbers I've seen for the spent-fuel pool [that was losing coolant] is well below capacity," said Edwin Lyman, a physicist with UCS, which describes itself as neither pro- nor anti-nuclear power, but which says nuclear safeguards today are not adequate. "That could limit the damage."

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is forecasting a magnitude 8.0 aftershock, which could completely destroy the damaged reactors at the Fukushima facility:

(Aerial view after Fukushima numbers 1 and 3 exploded; click for larger image.)

And the limited radiation readings which are available are rather worrisome.

The Jet Stream

The jet stream passes right over Japan on its way to the West coast of the United States.

As I noted Saturday:

The jet stream passes right over Japan. The jet stream was noticed in the 1920's by a Japanese meteorologist near Mount Fuji, and the Japanese launched balloon bombs into the jetstream to attack America during WWII.
If a meltdown caused radioactivity to be thrown high enough, or if the radioactivity got blown by surface winds up into the jet stream, it could spread widely.

Here's how the jet stream looks today:

Here is an artist's impression of how the jet stream could spread radiation in the future:

And here's a forecast for the next couple of days.

Accuweather notes the following times for radiation - in a worst-case scenario - to reach the West Coast:

Calculated time for radioactive particles to cross the Pacific from the power plants in Japan to big West Coast cities if the particles take a direct path and move at a speed of 20 mph:

Cities Est. Distance (miles) Est. Time to Cross Pacific (days)
Anchorage 3,457 7
Honolulu 3,847 8
Seattle 4,792 10
Los Angeles 5,477 11
But Accuweather meterologists argue that the winds will likely shift in different directions on a frequent basis, making it less likely that the radiation would be blown all of the way to the U.S.

As Haarertz notes:

Hebrew University Professor Menachem Luria, an expert on air quality and poisoning, told Channel 2 on Saturday .... "Once there is an uncontrollable heating up, the nuclear fuel undergoes a metamorphosis into the gaseous phase. Since we are talking about metals and solid items, they turn into particles that are capable of traveling great distances. They can wander thousands of kilometers."

If these gases are indeed emitted into the atmosphere in large quantities, the wind regime could carry them all the way to China, South Korea, and eastern Russia, or in the other direction, toward Hawaii and the west coast of the United States. The likelihood of this happening, though, is not high.

As CNN Meterologist Ivan Cabrera says:

If radioactive material gets into the jet stream then... we share that with the world.

However, Cabrera points out that the Jet Stream is at 30,000-50,000 feet in altitude. 30,000 feet is 5.7 miles up. So that's a long way up above the Japanese nuclear reactors, which are essentially at sea level.

Unless the radiation from the Japanese nuclear power plants is carried aloft that high, it will probably not make it into the jet stream.

So far, there is no indication of any kind that radiation has been carried into the jet stream. However, a U.S. aircraft carrier around 100 miles from the nuclear power plants have been exposed to radiation. 100 miles is obviously greater than 5.7 miles, but that is horizontal distance, and does not necessarily mean that radiation has risen high into the air. Obviously, if the wind is blowing off-shore at ground level, then that will move the radiation more or less horizontally. That is very different from blowing the radiation upwards.

As all of the experts agree, if a truly huge meltdown occurs, then the odds of radiation reaching the jet stream increase dramatically.

As national security expert Joe Cirincione told Fox News' Chris Wallace:

The worst case scenario is that the fuel rods fuse together, the temperatures get so hot that they melt together in a radioactive molten mass that bursts through the containment mechanisms and is exposed to the outside. So they spew radioactivity in the ground, into the air, into the water. Some of the radioactivity could carry in the atmosphere to the West Coast of the United States.

But a more difficult question is whether low-level radioactive release spread over many weeks or months could spread into the jet stream and then the Western United States.

As the New York Times notes:

Experts in Japan and the United States say the country is now facing a cascade of accumulating problems that suggest that radioactive releases of steam from the crippled plants could go on for weeks or even months.


  1. Thank you for this detailed update. Washington's blog is always a reliable source with the most current information.

  2. Half life of nuclear materials is 7 days. Nuclear threat to US is zero.


    Posted on March 17, 2011 4:15 PM by keith harmon snow
    A Doomsday Scenario Unfolds With Characteristic Foolishness


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