Radiation Non-Alert

Japan’s broken nuclear reactors will have no detectable effect on the health of Americans.

If it’s not one thing, it’s another as the Japanese nuclear power plant crisis nears the end of its second week. The most recent news is that radioactive elements appear to be leaking out of a couple of the partially melted-down reactors. Tests show that seawater off the plant site has elevated amounts of radioactive iodine, while others have found traces of plutonium isotopes in the soil around the plant sites. Meanwhile, some workers have been exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation as they work to repair the failed cooling systems.

Japanese regulators have also found high levels of radiation being emitted by radionuclides in milk from cows grazing near the broken reactors, as well has higher radiation levels in produce grown nearby. Elevated amounts of radioactive iodine have been found Tokyo’s drinking water.

A Rasmussen poll found in mid-March that 43 percent of Americans are at least somewhat concerned that Japanese radiation will reach the United States. Worried Americans are calling their physicians for advice about the dangers of radiation and pharmacists report that that they are running short of potassium iodide pills that can protect the thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive iodine.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency RadNet system of air monitors has detected slightly elevated radiation levels that are consistent with radiation having wafted across the Pacific. In addition, a test of rainwater in Massachusetts found slightly higher radiation levels, but not in Bay State drinking water. Should these findings cause Americans be concerned about their health? No.

As the EPA reported last week, radioactive particles detected in the West Coast monitors are hundreds of thousands to millions of times below levels of concern. The EPA statement also noted, “In a typical day, Americans receive doses of radiation from natural sources like rocks, bricks and the sun that are about 100,000 times higher than what we have detected coming from Japan.” The agency added, “For example, the levels we’re seeing coming from Japan are 100,000 times lower than what you get from taking a round trip international flight.” An agency update this week “continues to confirm that no radiation levels of concern have reached the United States.” Go here to check the RadNet monitor nearest you.

But what about the radiation found in rainwater in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania? At a press conference on Sunday, John Auerbach, the Massachusetts commissioner of public health, reported that one sample of rainwater found a slightly elevated level of the radioactive isotope iodine-131 which was likely emitted from the stricken Japanese power plants. The amount of iodine-131 detected exceeded the EPA’s maximum contamination level of 3 picocuries (0.1 becquerel) per liter for drinking water. However, the agency notes that this limit on ingesting “iodine-131 was calculated based on long-term chronic exposures over the course of a lifetime—70 years.” And keep in mind that this is in rainwater, not drinking water.

The EPA states that “short-term elevations such as these do not raise public health concerns” and that “the levels seen in rainwater are expected to be relatively short in duration.” The agency also promises to step up its rainwater monitoring. The good news is that radiation emitted by iodine-131 rapidly decays, because it has a half-life of just eight days. That is, its emissions drop to less than 1 percent of its original level within 60 days.

In Japan itself, iodine-131 and cesium-137 leaked from the Fukushima plants have contaminated some produce and milk in nearby regions. For example, tests of Japanese horseradish have found samples with iodine-131 emitting 2,500 becquerels per kilogram and cesium-137 at 340 becquerels per kilogram.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has set “derived intervention levels” (DILs) in foods contaminated by radionuclides. In this case, the DIL for iodine-131 is 160 bequerels per kilogram and for two cesium isotopes the DIL is 1,200 becquerels per kilogram. DILs are based on calculations showing how much contaminated food a person would have to eat over a specified period before that person’s accumulated dose of radiation reaches five millisieverts over his or her lifetime. One millisievert is roughly equal to exposure to 10 chest x-rays. Americans experience about three millisieverts of natural background radiation annually. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission limits the radiation exposure of nuclear power plant workers to 50 millisieverts per year.

The Japanese horseradish radioactive iodine contamination is 15 times the level set by the FDA. Extrapolating from calculations cited by Reuters, it would take someone eating a kilogram of horseradish daily (a quite heroic assumption) with that level of contamination for somewhere around 400 days for that person to accumulate 50 millisieverts of exposure, the annual limit set for nuclear power workers. One concern is that iodine concentrates strongly in the thyroid, which boosts the chance that an exposed person would get cancer in that gland. Again, keep in mind that the level of contamination by radioactive iodine decays to below the FDA’s limit in just over a month.

In the meantime, the FDA has banned the importation of produce and milk from the affected regions of Japan. The agency does note that the massive amount of damage caused by the earthquake and the tsunami is cutting down on the quantity of food that might be exported from Japan in any case.

Bottom line: Relax. Americans will likely experience no detectable health effects from the radionuclides released by the broken Fukushima reactors. 

Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution (Prometheus Books).

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    So they've gotten to you too, huh, Bailey? The government and Big Atom have a new mouthpiece.

    I think I'll just continue badgering my doctor and pharmacist about getting me a stockpile of potassium iodine pills, if it's all the same to you.

  • Otto||

    Here ya go, Fist - brew your own!

  • Otto||

    Due to medical issues, I get a CT scan once every three years, MRIs once every couple years, and chest X-rays once a year.

    Safe to say, I'm not sweating Japanese rainwater. (Although I hope they're able to fix their problems soon).

  • DK||

    To be fair, there's no exposure to any kind of damaging radiation during an MRI. Just radio waves.

  • Otto||

    I did not know that, but I should have looked it up. Thx for the correction.

  • ||

    "MRI", in the physics world, is called NUCLEAR magnetic resonance. "nuclear" here means radio waves due to the spins of the nucleus, nothing to do with radioactivity at all. But for medical applications they drop the "nuclear" because no one would stick their head in a nuclear anything.

  • Old Salt||

    Think that's bad? Most baby boomers I know STILL think that their microwaves are radioactive! My grandmother damn near had a fit when I simply tossed her old microwave oven in the trash when I bought her a new one for her birthday! She swore up and down that the Feds would ticket me for improperly disposing of nuclear waste!

    People are ignorant in just about every subject but SCIENCE seems to be our worst!

  • Libertarian||

    There's no such thing as externalities, what's to worry about?

  • ||

    There's no such thing as externalities, what's to worry about?

    ゴジラ!

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Libertarian,

    There's no such thing as externalities, what's to worry about?


    Absolutely nothing.

  • ||

    I demand a penny to compensate me for my level radiation exposure.

    A penny for every American. Surely the nuclear power industry cannot afford that.

  • DK||

    $3 million? Don't they get that in subsidies every day or so?

  • ||

    That's more like the daily profit of 1 large reactor.

  • ||

    I was going to have pancakes say something obnoxious, but he declined. I am astounded at the stupidity people display when the words nuclear or radiation are uttered. A simple google search could give them peace of mind, but instead they spout off cancerous retardation.

    Japan has a nuclear catastrophe that will ultimately claim fewer lives over the course than car accidents in this evening's commute. It's bad. But not as bad as it could be. The silver linings to this dark cloud are the lessons engineers will be able to apply to critical structures in the future.

    Shame the PR battle is already lost. Fucking chicken littles.

  • ||

    1. I demand a penny to compensate me for my level radiation exposure.

    2. they spout off cancerous retardation

    3. Profit???

  • ||

    I want my penny!!!

  • waffles||

    +1 penny

  • Realist||

    As usual the media miss the real problem....there are thousands and thousands of Japanese buried under the muck and many thousands that were eaten by sharks at sea....but what the fuck it's RADIATION....run for your lives!!!

  • ||

    Yeah, but the SHARKS are radioactive....

  • Dr. Evil||

    I said I wanted LASER SHARKS not frikkin' GLOW IN THE DARK SHARKS!

  • Sudden||

    I live on the West Coast, and I had sushi last night, including a specific type of oyster that I believe is only native to Japan. I have yet to feel any side effects.

  • Realist||

    It takes about TWO WEEKS!

  • Old Salt||

    Herpes takes longer than that...

    ...oh...

    ...I thought he MEANT something else by eating Japanese "Oysters"!

  • Old Mexican||

    The Japanese horseradish radioactive iodine contamination is 15 times the level set by the FDA. Extrapolating from calculations cited by Reuters, it would take someone eating a kilogram of horseradish daily (a quite heroic assumption) with that level of contamination for somewhere around 400 days for that person to accumulate 50 millisieverts of exposure, the annual limit set for nuclear power workers.


    That's a load of horseradish!

  • Realist||

    This whole thing is a load.

  • Old Salt||

    With that much wasabi a day, you'd SHIT yourself to death looong before the radiation could do any harm!

  • Anomalous||

    Everybody could stand a hundred chest X-rays a year. They ought to have them, too.

  • Unconcerned Scientist||

    So I did an order-of-magnitude calculation and I think potassium iodide has about 7-8 THOUSAND Bequerels/kg just from the naturally occurring potassium-40. Should we tell the folks in Berkeley? Nah...

  • Realist||

    Tell them the problem is worse than we thought and they need to take ten times the "normal" KI

  • DK||

    (Somewhat) interesting info on K-40 from Argonne National Lab:

    http://www.ead.anl.gov/pub/doc/potassium.pdf

  • Realist||

    Wow, thanks for that...or most Japanese!

  • Realist||

    ...should be
    "Japan’s broken nuclear reactors will have no detectable effect on the health of Americans."
    Wow, thanks for that...or most Japanese!

  • The Derider||

    "Again, keep in mind that the level of contamination by radioactive iodine decays to below the FDA’s limit in just over a month."

    A short half life is a good thing if a radioactive element is outside of your thyroid (it goes away more quickly), but the opposite is true if it's already there (it irradiates you more quickly).

  • ||

    That's already taken into account by the becquerel level. Elements with shorter half lifes are more radioactive, but that just means it takes less of them to reach the limit.
    5 becquerels is still 5 bequerels. So a very small amount is all it takes to react the EPA's limit, but it still decays rapidly.

  • The Derider||

    So he's making the point that we should keep in mind... something that is already accounted for in the science?

    Like: "again, keep in mind that while the bullet is going a thousand feet per second, it weighs less than an ounce."

  • ||

    You're thinking of sieverts, an integrated exposure. Becquerels is a unit of the rate of radioactive decay.

  • DK||

    True. For instance, the potassium-40 mentioned above. It has an extremely long half-life of a few billion years. But it gets eliminated by the body with a biological half-life of a month or so. If potassium-40 had a (much) shorter half-life, it would do extreme damage to the body. As it stands, it's fairly innocuous.

  • Sudden||

    Remember the Man Show's "Repeal Woman's Suffrage" booth? How about we have a booth offering free Potassium Cyanide and see how many we can dupe.

  • The Ghost of Homer Simpson||

    What about the Hanford plant in Washington State? Or the leaky reactors across the country. Or the 56 billion bunks Our Dear Leader wants to give to Immelt and his butt boys for new reactors across the country. You nuke fucks can KMA.

  • The Ghost of Homer Simpson||

    Let Obumbles The Clown and Immelt clean up the Fukushima site if they so hard for nuke power and so forth.

  • Grab a mop ||

    Cleanup on reactor 3...

  • Grab a mop ||

    Don't eat the vegetables or the fish, don't drink the water or the milk, don't breathe the air and YOU WILL BE JUST FINE, you hysterical slut children.

  • Jeffery Immelt's babysitter||

    As I understand it, Mr. Jeff wants to build a few hundred "Mark I" reactors. Mr. Jeff is good friends with Dear Leader, peas be upon him, and Dear Leader has offered Mr. Jeff some "running around money" -- something like 50 billion dollars and a few promises to excuse Mr. Jeff's company from any tortuous liability should his reactors go Fukushima. All this, for a lousy 500,000 in campaign cash to Hussein in 2008 and a couple of years of the I HEART HUSSEIN on the MSNBC channel. Ain't Amerika grand?

  • Bumathra Brother [India Pundit||

    In my country there is no building of the nuclear reactors because the government has the archaic "big stick" that will make the companies pay for the storage of the wastes and for the liabilities when the nuclear plants fail and grow the three eyes. In the USA, the wonderful rich citizens pay for these expenses and give the greece palms to the nuclear executives for DC hookers and games of pin the tail on the donkey latenight (are you catching my boat?)

  • Insensitive UCLA twat||

    I stopped worrying when the containment vessels floated and the reactor was able to be filled with water. I was like OMG before that and now I am like, my gosh, radiation never hurt anyone and it's not like the little pollution that is over there is going to be there for like ever. I mean, my gosh, it's just a little pollution, right? It's like going to the dentist! It's still fine to eat the sushi and terry-ock-y chicken, right?

  • Burnt||

    It always tickles me a bit when I see a radically anti-government bunch like Reason readers start quoting a bunch of government-provided statistics to support health claims. You cannot trust the government, ever. They will lie, lie, lie.

  • Tuskegee syphilis patient||

    Oh, great a conspiracy nut. I, for one, trust my government, absolutely and unequivocally!

  • Colonel_Angus||

    In this case the information provided by the government jives 100% with verifiable science. Science gets the credit, not government.

  • Joseph Hertzlinger||

    It always tickles me when supposed free spirits quote a bureaucrat who set an EPA limit that's 0.1% of the radioactivity of bananas.

  • The Choir Boy of Hopenchange||

    Whatever child emperor wants, the child emperor gets. Born in a Hawaiian* manger, he was sent here from the Ghost of Tom Joad to test America's resilience. Nuclear power for the masses - bridges glowing and peasants digging in the rice paddies; The GREAT LEAN forward is upon us. Spread them, comrades. Follow the Wise Man, Jeffery Immelting, to the promised land of the healed climates and the sinking oceans. Trust in your government.

    *subject to debate

  • Operation Plumbbob ||

    I can't for the life of me think of why somebody wouldn't trust their government with their lives...

  • Project Gabriel ||

    Darn kooks will believe anything Glenn Beckus Apocaplyticus tells em to.

  • Project Sunshine||

    You got that one right, Gary.

  • Dr. Eugene Saenger||

    MIT engineers -- what's not to trust? They have humanity's interests at *heart*. It's good to see these boys all over the blogs and writing newspaper editorials edumacating us peons that "there is nothing to see here" and their product is perfectly safe and worth your hard earned tax dollars. Like UAW workers clamoring for another GM bailout to save their worthless jobs. Grab a mop, guys. Show us.

  • Boss Tweed||

    No health concerns, unless you own a lot of stock in Japanese companies that operate nuclear power plants. In that case, I predict a very unhealthy financial future for you.

  • pdog||

    People are freaking out about infinitesimal amounts of radioactive isotopes in their water? I wonder if any of them happen to smoke a pack a day, inhaling carcinogens that over time will most likely result in health problems much more severe than even the Japanese people living around these nuke plants will have. Crazy.

  • ||

    Imagine the panic if a plutonium bomb and an uranium bomb were to dropped over Japan within a week of each other. How many Americans would sicken and die from that massive release of radiation?

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Whats the difference between this and climate science? This is simple chemistry. It is actually predictable.

  • Doc S||

    Where as climate science is a mix of multiple basic sciences and is also predictable.
    Point well taken.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    I would expect elevated spikes of radiation to be common, but we won't hear about it unless it is connected with something like this.

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  • wholesale beads||

  • Young Skywalker||

    So, seriously, would nuclear power plants be unregulated in "libertopia" (for lack of a better term)?

  • waffles||

    Seriously? No. As a political realist I can tell you that the NRC is one of the few regulatory bodies that is filled with people who are mostly competent and effective.

    Could be faster on those COLAs, but if we want NuScale and mPower, it's gotta be through the NRC. NRC doesn't suck nearly as much as it could, let's hope there's no regime change.

  • Young Skywalker||

    Thanks. You guys aren't as crazy as I'd been led to believe.

  • Doc S||

    No.. trust me, a lot of them are. Waffles is just one of the few poster's that understands SOME regulation is needed.

  • ||

    This analysis is flawed by failure to consider Pu239 release and fact that Fukushima housed 7,000 tons of spent fuel, some of which is MOX, much greater than Chernobyl.
    Plutonium Carries Serious Risks to Public Health and the Environment
    Home > News & Events > Press Releases
    March 30, 2011
    Topic: Nuclear Power, Safe Energy

    Washington, DC - March 30, 2011 – The release of plutonium from at least one of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactors carries serious risks to public health and the environment, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR). Inhalation of a plutonium particle the size of a speck of dust can lead to lung cancer and death. The particle’s extensive half-life also means it will impact the environment for thousands of years if released into the soil, air or sea.

    “The discovery of plutonium in the area around the Fukushima plant is another indication of the seriousness of this accident,” said Alan H. Lockwood, MD, a member of the Board of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “The dangers of such a release, to public health and the environment, cannot be overstated. If a minute amount of plutonium is trapped in the lung, it will deliver an intense dose of radiation to a very small volume of tissue for a very long time. This makes it highly carcinogenic.”

    “Japan’s government and TEPCO must be completely transparent about the facts of this situation,” said Jeff Patterson, DO, immediate past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “In order to properly protect the public and our precious natural resources, it’s vital that they give us a full accounting of what they’ve discovered around the plant.”

    There are two key public health aspects associated with the release of plutonium into the environment:

    * Plutonium Half-Life: Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,200 years. If it is inhaled, it will stay lodged in the body for decades.

    * Plutonium’s Alpha Particle: Plutonium-239 emits an alpha particle as it slowly decays. Alpha particles have huge amounts of energy, many times more than a gamma photon for example. When the energy of any source of radiation is deposited absorbed by a cell, it can cause damage to critical cell functions and the cell’s DNA. The higher the energy of that radioactive decay, the more that energy is converted into tissue damage. If a cell absorbs an alpha particle, the probability of it damaging that cell is very high. A microscopic speck of PU-239 sufficient to cause cancer.

    Plutonium is one of the most toxic substances known. Virtually all plutonium is created as a reactor operates and is present in all radioactive spent fuel. The Fukushima reactor #3 is of particular concern because its fuel is a mixture of uranium and plutonium oxides (MOX fuel) and the reactor therefore contains much larger quantities of plutonium than reactors which use uranium fuel.

    The risks associated with plutonium are vastly different from those associated with other radionuclides so far released from the Fukushima reactors. Iodine-131, for example, has a half-life of 8 days and can also be potentially blocked from absorption into the thyroid by taking potassium iodide. With plutonium, the half-life is 24,200 years, and there is no treatment option for blocking the effects of exposure.

    The plutonium from the damaged fuel can be released into the environment through steam releases, explosive gas releases or the release of contaminated water. It will primarily have effects in the local area, but can be carried away by the wind and water and could travel outside of Japan.

    “Although the latest reports suggest that the amount of plutonium released is very small, the mere finding of its presence provides further evidence of the extensive damage to the reactor core and the elevated risks posed to health by reactor accidents,” said Ira Helfand, MD, a member of the Board of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

    PSR reiterates its support of the ALARA principle (As Low As Reasonably Achievable), which states that radiation exposure levels should be kept as low as reasonably achievable.

    ABOUT PHYSICIANS FOR SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY (PSR)

    Founded in 1961 by physicians concerned about the impact of nuclear proliferation, PSR shared the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War for building public pressure to end the nuclear arms race. Since 1991, when PSR formally expanded its work by creating its environment and health program, PSR has addressed the issues of global warming and the toxic degradation of our environment. PSR educates and advocates for policies to curb global warming, ensure clean air, generate a sustainable energy future, and prevent human exposures to toxic substances. More information is available at www.psr.org.

  • Ben Wolf||

    Plutonium is also rather heavy, and I can't imagine dircumstances under which particles could be carried thousands of miles across the Pacific. It's a major concern for the Japanese, but not for the mainland United States.

  • Joseph Hertzlinger||

    I thought the plutonium they're detecting is the Pu-238 left over from atom bomb fallout.

  • ||

    How lovely to know that it is all a lot of hooey and that no-one important (ie. American) will be affected by this silly old, hyped-up catastrophe!

  • Fore more years||

    Meanwhile, Obama is doing what exactly about this unfolding crisis?

  • ||

    Bombing Libyans

  • ||

    Good information like the fact that: "Americans experience about three millisieverts of natural background radiation annually." Well, maybe that has something to do with cancer rates and birth defects.

    There is no "safe" level of radiation where we can "relax"!

    Wait until the plutonium pours out of the crack in the #3 containment vessel and the core of #2 melts down to the water table and explodes.

    Any scientist that would say - "Don't worry, be happy" when the crisis is still unfolding is a fool.

  • ||

    As usual, american turds are whining sociopaths only concerned with themselves (while they murder millions of people abroad)

  • ||

    Why libertarians defend nuclear energy is beyond me. Since this article was written, the Fukushima disaster has been upgraded to a level 7 which puts it on the same level as Chernobyl. Nuclear energy has a horrible safety record. There are no exact estimates but the area around Chernobyl today has a very high level of cancer and birth defects. Whole cities and towns are now desolate. More to the point, nuclear energy could never exist without big government. No insurance company in the world would insure a nuclear power plant against a nuclear disaster. Only big governments can do that. There are other issues too, like terrorist attacks, and what to do with the waste. Nuclear energy is a program that was developed by big government and for big government.

  • ||

    Read something credible instead of Greenpeace propaganda.

    "Fukushima disaster has been upgraded to a level 7 which puts it on the same level as Chernobyl" - you do not understand the INES scale. (Though honestly this is a problem about the INES scale, which is not very useful to the general public.) Fukushima is not even remotely as severe as Chernobyl.

    "Nuclear energy has a horrible safety record" - actually when you take an objective measure of safety, such as deaths per TWh, it's safer than solar.

    "No insurance company in the world would insure a nuclear power plant against a nuclear disaster" - 100% bullshit: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf67.html

    "There are other issues too, like terrorist attacks" - dams are a much bigger risk. Nuclear power stations are heavily guarded and most can withstand a hit by an airplane.

    "what to do with the waste" - Bury it deep in the ground, that's where the uranium came from. Reprocess it and it only has to stay in place for 300 years, after that it's less radioactive than uranium ore. There are many buildings older than 300 years.

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