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Fukushima: The End Of The World?


Fukushima is unequivocally one of the worst man made ecological disasters ever to afflict the world.  The melt down of multiple reactors, the release of radioactive materials, and probably a century of cleanup should make us think twice about using fission as a source of generating electricity.  Yes, due to the disaster people will get cancer and die.  How many?  That answer is very tough to project.  Will Fukushima  poison the Pacific and be the precursor to end of the world?  No.  As I said in Part 1 of this series I am going to look at this in a logical manner.  If you read this and continue to believe in your conspiracy theory’s that is your prerogative.


Fukushima has been the source of misinformation since day 1.  The first piece of misinformation that appeared on the Internet and in social media was the above graphic.  When I saw this graph for the first time my heart skipped a beat.  Could it be true?  A few seconds after scanning the graph I noticed one peculiarity; they were measuring the radiation in RAD’s.  I thought it odd that it wasn’t in Sieverts (Sv).  You wouldn’t predict a future total exposure.  A RAD is a method of measuring the total absorbed dose of radiation, a Sievert is the measurement of radiation occurring at a point in time.  Sievert can be measured, RAD has to be calculated.  This is what tipped me off  it wasn’t real.

People’s misunderstanding of radiation and its effects started to cause a panic.  I even considered selling my stock of Potassium Iodide as prices on Ebay hit $500 per box.  But let’s consider for a second that this graphic were true.  We’d have to make an assumption about how long it would take for a person to accumulate 750 RAD’s of exposure and let’s say that time period was a day.  A whole body dose of 750 RAD (7.5Gy) would probably lead to the death of every man, woman, and child in the United States within a month.  Since the event would be ongoing your total dose would be more than 7.5Gy thus hastening the effects.  This obviously never happened, not even close.

fukushima 2

So what did happen?  Well, after the SCRAM and when containment was breached radiation levels near the reactors rose to 400mSv/Hr.  Standing near the reactor would give a person their yearly limit of radiation exposure for a nuclear worker in about 15 minutes.  Such a large dose in a short period of time will increase the risk of cancer in their lifetime.  In two and a half hours the person’s body would begin to show clinical symptoms of Acute Radiation Syndrome such as Leukopenia.  If they left at this point their lifetime risk of cancer is 1 in 20.  There would also be a very slight risk of dying of radiation exposure (<1%).  Staying near this source of radiation any longer than 2.5 hours would guarantee ARS.  12.5 hours near the reactor for 10 hours would have a 50% chance of death within a month.  This obviously poses an issue for plant workers and cleanup.  These initial radiation levels left TEPCO and its employees with their hands tied.  They could only risk working for very short periods near the reactor.

One thing you have to understand about radiation exposure is radiation falls as a square to distance from the source.  At the same time the readings from the reactor were 400 mSv/Hr, readings at the main gate were 11mSv/Hr.  A 50% lethal dose would require exposure for 19 straight days, assuming that radiation levels were constant, but they are not.  Radiation levels continued to drop until through March 30th when levels dipped below .1mSv/R at the main gate.


Remember, I am writing this to put things into perspective.  Fukushima is a colossal disaster, no doubt, but for a moment we should crack open the history books and look at another disaster, Chernobyl, just to compare.  The Chernobyl accident involved only one reactor.  The accident occurred after a safety test went awry and the end result was the entire contents of the reactor exposed to and burning in the atmosphere.  Soviet reactors did not and do not have containment buildings like the one at Fukushima.  They have a biological shield that protects workers from direct radiation and nothing else.  Think of western reactors as a box within a box.  If the inner box is breached you still have the outer box.  In a Soviet reactor you have just the box.  On April 26th, 1986 a steam explosion blew off the biological shield to reactor number 4 at Chernobyl.  This exposed the entire contents of the reactor to the world.  Radiation levels near the reactor were 300,000 mSv/Hr or about 750 times that near the Fukushima reactors.  Nuclear fuel had been blown out of the reactor and onto the roof of the turbine hall.  Levels here were 150,000 to 200,000 mSV/Hr.  Fires had started on the roof and the fire brigade was called in to extinguish them.  While it is somewhat questionable as to whether these brave men knew the dangers they faced up on the roof they went.  Lethal doses were received in by these men in under 5 minutes.  All of them died.


As an interesting side note, the Soviets didn’t understand the term “International Radiation Limit for Nuclear Workers”.  Contents of a nuclear reactor were all over the roof of the Chernobyl facility.  They needed to get the situation squared away for they needed the electrical power the other 3 reactors at the site were producing.  Oh, I didn’t mention the other three reactors at the site continued to operate during this entire disaster?  Anyways, they did make an attempt to use robots to try to throw the debris back into the burning reactor.  Due to the extremely high radiation levels all of the robots electronics failed.  One even appeared to commit suicide by driving over the edge of the roof.  But I digress, the Soviets then turned to a resource they had plenty of, people.  The solution to cleaning up the reactor components was as follows; If a person receives a lethal dose of radiation in 4 or 5 minutes then 45 seconds shouldn’t kill them, right? On the roof they went, by the thousands, tens of thousands maybe.  These “volunteer” Liquidators would run up on the roof, pick up a piece of debris and toss it back into the destroyed reactor.  Sometimes they would pick up the debris with a shovel, sometimes with their bare hands.  Each of these “volunteers” probably received 25 times the western limit for yearly exposure in that one short trip up to the roof of less than a minute.  It also deserves mention that the Soviets deemed a couple of days rest adequate for some of these men to do it again.  In the end they got the job done, however, the costs in terms of cancers and premature deaths may never be known.


In terms of direct onsite radiation exposure Chernobyl was orders of magnitude more deadly than Fukushima.  Those of you who are keen of observation might have noticed that I said “radiation levels fall as a square to the distance from the source”.  What happens if that source moves? By this I mean what happens if the elements that are releasing gamma, beta, and alpha radiation migrate from their original location?  Once a reactor is no longer contained, such as in Chernobyl and to a lesser degree Fukushima, the contents of the reactor can geographically spread; venting into the atmosphere, smoke from a burning reactor, and leaking onto the ground and into water are a few methods.  To understand what this means to you, wherever your location in the world, you must first ask what is spreading.  Radiation is a catch all term for an atom emitting a ray or particle.  Each has its own characteristics.  We need to take a look at the byproducts of nuclear fission and their properties to further put things into perspective.

A nuclear reaction starts with Uranium and in the case of reactor 3 at Fukushima, Plutonium as well.  Fission occurs when an atom is split by a neutron.  When an atom is split it releases another neutron which in turns splits another atom to continue the chain reaction.  As these atoms split they become other elements.  Some of these new creations are dangerous to humans, Iodine 131, Cesium 137, and Stontium 90 to name a few:

  • Iodine 131:  A byproduct of fission with a half-life of 8 days.  If ingested Iodine 131 is concentrated in the thyroid and can cause thyroid cancer.  Since it has been almost 4 years since the disaster Iodine 131 is no longer a concern.  Evacuations shortly after the disaster limited the exposure to nearby residents, even so there is a slightly elevated risk of cancer among the youngest of the population.  Approximately 500 PBq of Iodine 131 was released to the environment (compared to 1,760PBq at Chernobyl).
  • Cesium 137: With a half-life of 30 years Cesium 137 released during the disaster will be a danger to the world for the next 300 years.  Being water soluble if ingested it is evenly distributed throughout the body with the highest concentrations in soft tissue, increasing the risk of cancer.  Cesium 137 is the biggest danger to residents surrounding Fukushima.  The disaster released approximately 15PBq of Cesium 137 (compared to 85PBq at Chernobyl).
  • Strontium 90: Due to the aforementioned double containment the release of Strontium 90 was not as apparent at Fukushima as it was at Chernobyl.  With a half-life of 29 years Strontium 90 is also dangerous for almost 300 years.  Strontium 90 is chemically similar to calcium and acts accordingly when ingested.  It concentrates in the bones and marrow and can lead increase the risk of bone and blood cancers.

The area around Fukushima is poisoned just the same as around Chernobyl but to a lesser degree.  The water of the Pacific Ocean near the plant also has dangerous levels of radioactivity.  Whereas the Russians used brute force and disregard for human life to contain the Chernobyl disaster Tepco and the Japanese are attempting to contain the ongoing Fukushima disaster within IAEA guidelines.  Yes, they are pumping water into the reactors to cool the still hot fuel.  Yes, when this water is pumped through it becomes contaminated; they are storing this radioactive water in containers onsite.  And YES, there are leaks, into the ground water, into the soil, and into the Pacific Ocean.  But NO, this is not and WILL NOT* be the end of the world nor the Pacific Ocean.

Again, we have to put things into perspective.  To do so you have to know a few more pesky facts:


Between 1945 and 1963 the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China conducted approximately 530 atmospheric nuclear tests.  Another 1525 tests were conducted underground through the time of this writing.  These tests released hundreds of times more radio nucleotides than Chernobyl, let alone Fukushima.  Plutonium, Uranium, Cesium 137, Strontium 90 and more can be found in any soil sample taken from anywhere in the world.  An estimated total of 2,566,000 TBq was released through weapons testing.

Remember the 400 mSv/Hr from the readings taken near the reactor immediately following the containment breach?  This is a graphic the cumulative fallout from a single atmospheric nuclear test, Castle Bravo.  People as far as a few hundred miles from ground zero would have received a lethal dose.


Until 1993 it was legal to dump radioactive waste directly into the ocean.  In fact, it was a preferred method.  From low level liquid waste to reactors complete with spent fuel, dumping in the ocean was an easy way to get rid of waste.  In total approximately 85,000 TBq of dangerous radioactive waste has been dumped into the ocean.

The point of mentioning all of the other disasters, tests, and dumping is to show you how Fukushima relates.  The Fukushima disaster  is a small fraction of the total radioactivity that has been introduced to the people of earth.

Somehow we are still alive

It might begin to sound like I am an advocate of lighting off nukes and dumping radioactive waste willy-nilly into the environment.  Like for fun, on a Saturday morning, I crack open a can-o-Plutonium and dump it into the storm sewer in front of my house.  I don’t.  I wish it would all go away.  It would be great to live a life without worrying about nuclear weapons or ever having to rely on nuclear power.  But this is reality.  I am sure that countless numbers of lives have been lost to cancers from the effects of weapons testing, meltdowns, medical waste, etc.  The point is, as a whole, we are all still here.  It pains me to see folks dedicate their lives to worrying that Fukushima is going to kill them.  Fukushima will increase your odds of dying sooner than you would if it didn’t exist.  These odds increase ever so slightly, just like the odds of dying from a lightning strike increase when you are in a thunderstorm.

*Earlier in the story I said Fukushima would not be the end of the world.  Notice the asterisk.  While it wouldn’t be the end of the world there is one contingency that could turn it into an even greater emergency.  Because Tepco and the Japanese are taking their sweet time in trying to find a solution to the disaster there is the possibility that some outside event, such as another earthquake, could jar things within one of the melted reactors and create a criticality accident that could rival Chernobyl and start the process all over again.  It is a remote possibility, but a possibility nonetheless.

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