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Fukushima Radiation Leaks : updated 8/8/11
Fukushima's “Radiation Leaks”
(Updated Aug. 8, 2011)
What are the “radiation leaks” from the Fukushima accident? How have misconceptions about radiation, and confusion between radiation and fallout made matters worse than they need to be in the Japanese public mind? How has the public's phobic fear of radiation fueled governmental over-reaction in Japan? Before we can answer these questions, we must first learn a few things about radiation and how exposures can occur.
One of the most significant issues that contributes to the Hiroshima Syndrome is public confusion between fallout and radiation itself. Einstein predicted this would happen in 1945 when his appeal to have the public educated on nuclear realities was ignored by the government. Fallout is the suffocating dust and debris caused by volcanic eruptions, the collapse of large structures (like the World Trade Center on 9-11-01) and/or the detonation of powerful explosives. Fallout caused by a nuclear detonation is highly radioactive, while the fallout from volcanoes is mildly radioactive. While radiation can be included with fallout, radiation is not the fallout. An analogy might be if you sprinkle sugar on your morning cereal. The sugar comes with the cereal, but the sugar is not the cereal. It is the constant use of the term “fallout” in reports about Fukushima that evokes the horror of Hiroshima in 1945. While the term's use is widespread, in the news media and “official” statements alike, it's use in relation to nuclear power plants is totally misleading and technically incorrect.
Another source of on-going confusion is the notion of radiation leaking out of Fukushima. Radiation is emitted by the air and water-borne material leaking from the stricken facility, but the radiation itself doesn't leak out. Radiation is emitted. Radiation emanates. In some cases, radiation can exist in measurable streams. But radiation does not leak.
Next is the repeated use of the term “ray” when reporting specific types of radiation, compelling the naïve mind to relate it with chest X-rays. A “ray” is purely a concentrated form of energy. A “ray” can be used to take pictures of our skeletons inside our bodies because a ray can penetrate living tissue. One ray, X-ray radiation, is a relatively continuous flow of energy occurring between precise frequencies. X-ray doesn't come from nuclear plants. It comes from medical uses. But, another ray, gamma, can come from nukes. Gammas are concentrated clumps of energy spit out of atomic nuclei that have too much energy. Although little known outside the medical and health Physics' communities, Gamma can also be used to take pictures of our skeletons. Gamma can penetrate and pass though our bodies. With respect to Fukushima, the only “ray” is gamma radiation released from some of the leaking isotopes.
The other types of radiation from Fukushima, Beta and Alpha, are not rays. They are particles. They cannot be used to take pictures of our skeletons because they can't penetrate even something as thin and flimsy as tissue paper. Alpha is a helium nucleus minus any electrons, and Beta is nothing more than a tiny electron. There have been a few reports of “neutron rays” coming from Fukushima. A neutron is also a particle, and not a ray. But neutron particles are weird. They can penetrate living tissue because they have no electrical charge, so theoretically they can be used to make skeletal pictures, but no such technology actually exiasts. Regardless, two of the primary forms of radiation that have come from Fukushima are actually particles, and only a third (Gamma) is a ray.
Perhaps the most confused aspect to Fukushima reports is the widespread use of the term “radiation” to cover all radioactive realities. As explained above, radiation is either the emitted particles (beta or alpha) or tiny energy bursts (gamma) released from the unstable nuclei of naturally occurring or man-made isotopes. There are several types of radioactive sources and exposures. One type of exposure is “whole body”, which literally exposes the entire body or significant portions of the body to emitted radiation from radioactive sources. An analogy is standing in front of a light bulb, where your entire body is exposed to the light. (which is also radiation, by the way) The light bulb is the source of the light's exposure. What we call “natural background” is a whole body exposure, which is about 300 millirem per year for the average American. (3.0 millisieverts/year) If anything coming from Fukushima should be called “radiation”, it's whole body exposure, which really isn't a risk to the surrounding population. (more on this later)
Other types of exposure come from...
airborne activity - airborne elements that emit radioactivity
surface contamination - radioactive elements deposited on materials , and
radioactive elements deposited in soil and dissolved in water.
Most airborne activity results in the emission of alpha (helium nucleus) or beta (electron) radiation, which cannot penetrate the outer layers of your skin. If the airborne material is breathed in and lodges in the lungs, the alphas and betas are released into living tissue. A huge concentration of airborne activity, like from the Hiroshima blast in 1945, can be deadly. Moderate levels of airborne exposure have never been shown to actually hurt anyone. The potential of a moderate airborne exposure hurting someone is one of the health concerns for the population in the 20 kilometer zone around Fukushima. Most airborne activity from nuclear plants comes from the gasses Krypton and Xenon, which cannot be absorbed into the lungs nor deposited on skin due to their inert chemistry. Other airborne elements, like I-131 and Cs-137, can be absorbed in the lungs and deposited on exposed skin, thus the wearing of masks and complete Haz-Mat-like coveralls to keep it out of the lungs and off the skin.
Surface contamination is airborne activity which settles on the outside of plants, animals, buildings, and people. Surface contamination is radioactive dust or dirt. Surface contamination can become airborne due to wind gusts and everyday surface activity. However, by washing contaminated surfaces with a mist or fog-type spray, the contamination is removed and no longer a breathing hazard. Also, any person who's skin or hair becomes contaminated, need only thoroughly shower and wash the hair (with light pressure so as to not imbed the material in the skin) to remove the contamination.
Airborne activity depositedin the soil and dissolved in water can be ingested into the body. Huge ingestions of digestible radioactive isotopes, like I-131 and Cs-137, can be harmful and (if unchecked) deadly. A gross example, which should never be compared to Fukushima, is Hiroshima in 1945. Another misleading but more Fukushima-appropriate example is Chernobyl, where the Soviet government took nearly two days to evacuate anyone from near the plant, and seldom confiscated contaminated foodstuffs. If there was ever a governmental nuclear energy cover-up, it was with Chernobyl radioactive releases. Keep in mind also that the amount of Iodine and Cesium released from Chernobyl was seven times greater than Fukushima. Local milk taken from cattle eating Chernobyl's high density of I-131, was consumed in a relatively concentrated level by thousands of schoolchildren. Nearly all were found to have contracted thyroid disorders, including cancer, from the I-131 concentrated in their thyroids. All were cured, although some reputable sources say as many as nine have died of cancer over the past 25 years. None of this applies to Fukushima where precautionary evacuations were effected early-on and contaminated milk volumes have been confiscated and destroyed.
All of the alleged radiation risk from Fukushima concerns three of the specific forms of radiation exposure above; airborne activity, surface contamination, and activity deposited in soil or dissolved in water. These three forms of exposure are the only justifiable reasons for the public protective measures mandated by the Japanese government. One final point, expressed in a Japanese government press release...radiation is not contagious or infectious. It is not a disease! It is the most natural and ubiquitous phenomena in the universe.
Fukushima's radiation exposures
With respect to whole body exposure, there was never an actual risk for any member of the public of receiving a dose that would be in any way health-threatening. The whole body exposure limits of concern are for the workers at the plant site; keeping the spent fuel pools cooled, cleaning up the contaminated debris, and decontaminating waste waters. As it turns out, detailed monitoring of the population centers in northern Japan has shown that the belief that natural background levels are merely 0.1 microsievert per hour for all of Japan is flat out wrong! Most of Japan's seacoast...maybe. All of Japan...unlikely! Since mid-July, background levels have not changed anywhere, and several locations have stayed above the so-called average. In fact, the background in Fukushima City has stayed at 0.42 microsievert/hr. This is probably the background exposure for that City. There seems to be no prior record of measuring Fukushima City's natural background (whole body) exposure level, so this may well be the first.
The Fukushima City background measurement reveals something that some of my friends find astonishing. The peaks in whole body exposures at the cities closest to Daiichi (or anywhere else in northern Japan) never reached the natural Fukushima City level of .42 microsieverts per hour! Only a few town locations like in Okuma, Date and Iitate, have measued exposures higher than Fukushima City. So, most of the evacuations and other protective measures surrounding Fukushima due to whole body exposures with the public, make no sense when compared to Fukushima City's natural background level. None! With respect to airborne and other contamination exposures, there are politically justifiable reasons for the 20 kilometer evacuation zone around Daiichi...based entirely on the Linear, No Threshold model (no safe level theory) of risk. So, let's look at the politically-motivated rationales for the evacuations, where these activity levels are currently at, and what they will probably be over the next few months.
First, the public protection measures are almost entirely due to potential airborne, surface, soil and water contamination levels theoretically possible from a full catastrophic meltdown (which is technically a fiction), which never happened at Fukushima. Japan had no plans for emergency evacuations written before Fukushima, so all evacuations zones were created on-the-spot. Some sources say that a spent fuel explosion or fire could have been just as catastrophic, but these two notions are as fictional as a unicorn. The decisions to evacuate out to 20 km, and keeping people indoors out to 30 km, were entirely arbitrary except for the actual areas that had significant radioactive deposition. The two evacuation radii were political, not scientific decisions.
Next, we must keep in mind that the majority of the volumes of I-131 and Cs-137 released into the atmosphere from Fukushima Daiichi occurred as a result of, and immediately after, the three hydrogen explosions that blew the tops off of reactor buildings 1, 3 & 4. Much of the I-131 and Cs-137 which resulted in Fukushima getting the same accident rating as Chernobyl, was blown out to sea by the winds occurring during March 12-14. Thus, using the actual contamination levels not blown out to sea would have resulted in Fukushima getting a level six INES rating...not seven.
With all this in mind, let's look at several monitoring efforts in and around northern Japan focusing on airborne activity and contamination levels from Fukushima Daiichi reported by the Japanese government, Japan's Atomic Industrial Forum, the Ministry of Health, and TEPCO. Please keep in mind that, currently, there is no radioactive Iodine remaining. It has radioactively burned itself out due to its relatively short half life.
Nearly foodstuff sampling outside of Fukushima Prefecture were below the health standards for Cs-137 within weeks of the accident. All drinking (potable) water levels were non-detectable. The standards being used by Tokyo are exceeding low, relative to the naturally occurring activity levels found in drinking waters all over Japan due to Radon and several other naturally occurring radioactive elements. The levels of Cesium in the health standards are more than a hundred times less than what would be theoretically risky with respect to bone deposition and resulting cancers for less than 1 percent of the exposed population. Outside Fukushima Prefecture, all foods and drinking waters are safe. Any person or group saying otherwise is perpetrating fiction as fact. There have been some tainted beef concerns, which will be addressed below.
Inside Fukushima Prefecture (including the 20 km no-go and extended evacuation zones - EPZ), all public drinking water sources are safe. Four specific locations of leafy vegetable samples showed Cs-137 levels above the ultra-conservative health standards in April, 2011, but now no Fukushima foods exceed the limits. The major concern (because all detected Cesium levels are very low) was the I-131 and it's demonstrated ability to concentrate in the thyroid. Because of I-131's 8-day half life, all of it is now gone. After 10 or more half-lives, a radioactive isotope literally burns itself out.
Contamination on people's homes has unquestionably been washed off and into the surrounding soil due to the many periods of rain over the past month. The contamination levels on the debris and destruction caused by the tsunami should also be very low, at this point. The major issue, and decontamination roadblock, is NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). Safe disposal of the accumulated waste is literaly at a stand-still due to fears of nuclear waste. Everyone in Japan wants the EPZ decontaminated, but no-one is willing to let the waste material be buried safely at land-fills. All coal plant fly-ash is more radioactive than the decontamination wastes from Fukushima Prefecture, and it is considered "sanitry land fill". Why the government doesn't use this comparative tool to quell public fears is a mystery.
Will there be any more contamination from Fukushima to deal with? Probably not. The airborne activity levels at the Daiichi power complex are more than 100 times less than the health standards for radioactive workers. In other words, the release of airborne materials from the source, the Daiichi Nuclear Power Station itself, has been effectively quashed. Rubble and debris removal does not seem to have spawned any increases in airborne activity levels on site for any of the isotopes of concern over the past few days. And, the occasional emissions “white smoke” doesn't make any radiological difference because its merely evaporation from the spent fuel pools. Keep in mind, the natural dispersal characteristics of our atmosphere makes the above monitored levels even less of a concern for the surrounding area. Further airborne activity surges, and resulting surface, soil, and drinking water contamination levels of realistic concern, are highly unlikely (at most).
Protecting the public?
Although the above statistics suggest things are getting quite safe in Japan, the government has effected a police-enforced total evacuation and no-reentry edict within 12 miles of Daiichi. Govt. spokesman Yukio Edano said this was being done because of “continued fears of radiation leaks” and “a huge risk” to public safety. The Fukushima Prefectural government is considering affording everyone from the evacuated area free health care. Why? ''The amount of radiation is not at the level to affect people's health, but it is true the level is higher than usual,'' Yusaku Matsumoto, vice governor, said. ''We need to take certain measures to mitigate the public concerns.'' Doesn't that sound at least a little bit hypocritical? There's no real risk, so they're considering doing the same thing done at Chernobyl just to make their people feel better? This is a political reaction to unreasonable fear of radiation. This does no more than make it seem that phobic fear is reasonable. Confusion between fallout and radiation is the source of the fear, a confusion that is one of the three primary sources of the Hiroshima Syndrome.
Here's the bottom line...the radiological conditions in the most contaminated portions outside of the 20 km no-go zone around Daiichi, have always been at least a hundred times less severe than what was experienced by the people surrounding Chernobyl in 1986, yet the Japanese government is acting like it's as bad as Chernobyl. It's not even close. Current airborne levels are thousands of times less those that should be of concern with respect to the public around Fukushima Daiichi, and one isotope which drove the evacuations, I-131, is gone. The mandatory evacuation ordered by the government is not based on actual risk, but rather on hypothetical risk combined with the an attempt to soothe the public's fear of radiation in general. Rather than educate the public on the realities involved, Japan has fed the fears and misconceptions spawned by fictitious notions of radiation exposure risks derived from arbitrary guesswork created more than 50 years ago...arbitrary guesswork we now know was entirely incorrect. Feeding unreasonable fears makes no sense. They are actually exacerbating the mental damage that had been inflicted on the world by the Hiroshima Syndrome for more than 5 decades.
A nation-wide issue has emerge concerning the sale and consumption of beef containing Cesium isotopes from Fukushima and at least four other Prefectures. The levels of Cesium-134 and 137 are below health standards for consumption in more than 99% of the cattle. But, the existence of these non-hazardous levels in beef combined with widespread phobic fear of radiation, makes it a significant health issue. The origin of the issue are at least two farms in Fukushima Prefecture that supply feed to beef cattle growers having above-safety-standard Cesium levels in their rice straw. The cattle consumed this straw and that's how the Cesium got into the meat.
Straw draws water and nutrients from it's surrounding soil as it grows. The soil in which the contaminated straw was grown has barely detectable Cesium levels. The Cesium isotopes drawn in from the soil concentrate in the straw as it develops. The concentration effect is why the straw has well-above-standard contamination levels. Although Cesium is somewhat water soluble, it is quite indigestible. Most of the ingested Cesium passes quickly through the digestive systems of mammals and more than 99.9% is not retained. We can thus see why more highly-contaminated feed results in much less contaminated beef.
Less than 1% of the cattle tested have Cesium levels slightly higher than the health standard. The standards are set at least an order of magnitude below the statistical threshold for hypothetical negative health effects. All of the above-limit cattle have meat concentrations below twice the standard. While more than 36,000 cattle have been found “clean”, the government has impounded all shipped beef from the affected Prefectures and banned further shipments. Regardless, nation-wide phobic fear of radiation and a general distrust of government reports concerning anything associated with Fukushima have caused the sale of domestic beef to drop ~50%.
A large number of people across Japan are growing sunflowers to “absorb widespread radiation” (Mainichi Shimbun quote) from the soil. The seeds will be sent to Fukushima Prefecture for planting in 2012. Organically, the radiation itself cannot be absorbed by the plants. Actually, what is drawn into the sunflowers is the soil's radioactive Cesium, which has chemical properties similar to Potassium (which is naturally radioactive). While the soils have their Cesium levels lowered, the resulting sunflowers will significantly concentrate the element and handling them will potentially be a problem. Not that the more-radioactive sunflowers will be radiologically health-threatening, but the elevated radiation levels will probably cause yet another future source of phobic radiation fears.