Japan wakes up to Chernobyl's lessons

Details of the Fukushima accidents remain sketchy, and it will likely be months before the true scope of radiation release will be known, both in terms of which isotopes have escaped containment and at what levels. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, radiation levels following reactor explosion reached 1,00,000 microsieverts per hour, four times the maximum allowed by the IAEA, and more than 100 times the normal radiation exposure per person, per year. But even that worrying fact fails to offer guidance about human health impacts. Details regarding what types of isotopes, emitting which forms of radiation, are not yet available.

To date, authorities have listed 190 Fukushima workers as victims of radiation sickness — the most acute form of radiation exposure, which results in damage to multiple organ systems, skin burns, and usually a slow deterioration and death.

Still under control

If the reactors fall like dominoes, however, and if fires remain uncontained, the danger of radiation could become much greater. But while the fallout levels so far have been well above normal background radiation for Japan, they have not yet come close to those produced by the April 25, 1986, Chernobyl catastrophe in Ukraine.

Following the Chernobyl meltdown, the nearby town of Pripyat was evacuated, and it remains a ghost town inside a so-called Alienation Zone around the nuclear power plant. Though some Ukrainians stubbornly continue living in the zone, radiation levels detected in soil samples and local flora and fauna remain high, and food in the form of local animals or mushrooms is still considered dangerous for human consumption. Nearly 7,000 workers still make their way to the plant every day, maintaining safety operations.

Inside the Alienation Zone and another 70 kilometers into Russia, gamma radiation levels in soil samples exceed normal background levels by 14 to 46 times those found in the United States. ‘Radiophobia’ was a term coined by the Russians for the syndrome in which people across the region feared every morsel they ate, every drop they drank, and the very air they breathed.

The clearest evidence of Chernobyl impact on human health was damage to the thyroid gland, which absorbs iodine. Radioactive iodine was a key component of Chernobyl fallout, and along the path of that grim extrusion there are today thousands of deaths as well as ailing adults who were children in 1986.

Distribution of prophylactic iodine was slow after the Chernobyl incident. The 2006 IAEA analysis found this mistake fatal for many, because thyroid uptake of radioactive iodides was very rapid, saturating the organ within days.

Unlike Soviet authorities in 1986, the Japanese government has responded swiftly to each stage of the Fukushima disaster. It has rapidly evacuated citizens from the area, and has been relatively transparent about radiation evidence as it has been collected.

Aware of the dangers of both ‘radiophobia’ and cavalier denial, the government has tried to convey information that directs the Japanese people to a rational response.
Still, health dangers remain, not only for the workers remaining inside the Fukushima plant, but all people remaining in a roughly 20 to 30 mile periphery of the area. Until details regarding the radionuclide types and doses that have already been emitted are known, most health claims regarding the general Japanese population are pure speculation. Certainly, further breaches, fires, explosions or meltdowns will increase the probability of health problems.

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