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Japan nuclear leak - health risks 3

Fergus Walsh | 14:38 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011

"The situation is definitely more serious". That is how the government's Chief Scientist has summed up the rapidly developing crisis at Fukushima. Professor John Beddington altered his assessment of the situation because of the loss of water covering spent fuel rods stored in ponds close to the reactors.

In this rapidly developing crisis, this is causing "considerable concern" according to Professor Beddington, speaking in a TV interview. American, French and British nuclear experts who are monitoring the situation believe that the pond in Reactor 4 is all but gone.

He explained that the worst case scenario is that the fuel rods could start to burn and emit substantial amounts of nuclear material into the atmosphere. Professor Beddington said he was also "extremely worried" that the fuel tanks in Reactors 5 and 6 are leaking and if open to the air might emit significant amounts of radiation which would undermine the ability of the Japanese emergency workers to continue their efforts to control the situation.

So what does this mean for the potential health risks? Up to now Professor Beddington had supported the line taken by the Japanese authorities, that any danger was confined to within a 30 kilometre (18 mile) radius of the reactors.

Now he believes: "The situation is definitely more serious both within the area and further afield". The Scientific Advice Group for Emergencies (SAGE) which advises the government, have looked at "plausible worst case scenarios". For days that has been a potential meltdown of some of the reactor nuclear material but now a potential fire and release of radioactive material from the fuel rods has to be added in. Professor Beddington said if both these things happened and there were unfavourable winds, then radioactive material could affect Tokyo.

But he added this caveat: "Even in that situation we think the level of radiation that would come into the Tokyo area would be such that you could mitigate against it with relatively straightforward and simple measures - such as staying indoors with the windows closed."

British nationals are being advised to stay at least 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the nuclear plant, and to consider leaving Tokyo.

update 1530

"We are right to be worried by need to put the risks in context" said Gerry Thomas, Professor of Medical Pathology at Imperial College London. She is concerned that the dangers to human health are being exaggerated by some in the international media and could cause "psychological damage" to the Japanese.

She said that, even in the worst-case scenario, with a large release of radioactive material from Fukushima, the health dangers would be minimal.

"The Japanese are doing the right things - giving people iodine tablets, setting up an exclusion zone and asking people to stay indoors". Even if radiation from Fukushima reached Tokyo she believes the long-term health risks would be minimal.

Gerry Thomas is an expert in the health effects of radiation and has been studying tissue samples from many of the cancer patients affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Like other experts she said Fukushima was in no way as serious as Chernobyl and she urged those reporting the situation not to overplay the situation.


  • Comment number 1.

    I would like to know why the "experts" dont just come out with it and tell the world that the radiation is airborn and is working its way across our planet and that yes, it is going to start raining and when it does our water supplies and our crops will be rained on by nuclear rain and so we will be eating and drinking it. I just wish for once the governments of this world would grow a spine and tell the truth. People are going to die but it is natures way of culling the human race it has nothing to do with Green house gasses, these events have been happening long before the wheel was invented it has nothing to do with us humans.

  • Comment number 2.

    wow....Paula you really seem to be a doomsayer. are you an 'expert' yourself and so know so much more about the true effects from a radiation leak, or is your understanding of radioactivity based on Lost and Spiderman? Radiation cannot itself be airbourne, radioactive particles can. Gamma rays will not travel this far and there would have to be a much larger leak or radioactive substances for it to have any noticeable effect this far away, or even travel this far away. I think maybe you are one the people overplaying the situation and maybe should get a sense of perspective. possibly find a textbook and inform yourself a little further about radioactivity rather than making sweeping "we're all going to die" statements that do nothing to help anyone.

  • Comment number 3.

    I do think there will be one good outcome from all this. The public is ending up with a better idea of the real safety issues surrounding nuclear power. Most people are now getting the message that the risks aren't about sudden failures, the problems are about keeping fuel rods cool over a period of hours and days after a reactor is scrammed.

    This should mean that the debate in the UK can focus more on the detailed technical aspects of whether the containment and cooling systems are good enough and not on spurious or superficial discussions.

    Along with most engineers and scientists I think that any debate is improved with a better knowledge of the details of the subject matter. Before this happened I certainly couldn't, for example, ever foresee UK public discussions about the details of the 4 separate cooling systems or spent fuel storage arrangement for the new EPR reactor planned for Hinkley Point.

    Whatever the UK Government eventually decides, it will be a decision the electorate is more knowledgable about which can only be for the good in a democracy.

  • Comment number 4.

    I live near Tokyo but almost all people stay clam.
    I would like to tell that do not emphasize report current status NOW.
    People who stay outside of PANIC cause small panic NOW.

    If you want provide information, you provide how to solve
    this problem as well please.

    Japanese who stay in nearby Tokyo stay clam.

  • Comment number 5.

    I'm surprised at how much the media relies on the "belief" of international experts that "the pond in Reactor 4 is all but gone". As far as I can tell, they have not presented any evidence for this belief, which directly contradicts the statement by TEPCO that the pool is not dry. When Gregory Jaczko, the chief of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was pressed for the source of this belief, he cited unspecified (non-Japanese) staff in Tokyo, but was unable to back up the claim. That is not what I would consider hard evidence and I think it was irresponsible of him to brief US Congress based on this non-verified claim. So far none of those second-guessing the Japanese authorities have delivered any hard evidence to back up their claims. Yet the media continues to place as much, if not more, trust in those non-verified claims than in official statements. It seems that those who accuse the authorities of hiding the truth are so convinced that Japan is on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe that nothing short of a statement that confirms their fears will satisfy them. The available evidence so far suggests that those fears are exaggerated, so the authorities may actually not be able to satisfy this demand. But instead of being allowed to hope, people are encouraged to believe that the authorities are lying and to fear the worst. As I said in my commment yesterday, I wish the media and governments were less concerend about headlines and votes and more about the victims of this tragedy, who already have more than enough to worry about.

  • Comment number 6.

    Another excellent blog based on expert advice. You should be asked to lead with this on the BBC 10pm TV news tonight. Last night the presenters on that program warned us about a possible "disaster" or "catastrophe" without taking any steps to explain what they meant. This is not acceptable at a time when BBC TV is watched around the world. Even at its very worst we are not facing an "On the Beach" scenario.

  • Comment number 7.

    The magical formula , IODINE PILLS....LOL

  • Comment number 8.

    I live nearby Tokyo. I am Japanese.
    I would like to tell Media.

    I think that PANIC is worst risk NOW.
    Media generate SMALL panic now.
    Until now, some people die due to small panic.
    Because PANIC cause lack GAS,medication,food,etc.

    Media tell detail of this problem If you have option to solve problem or rescue people.

    I really afraid PANIC not radioactive pollution NOW.

  • Comment number 9.

    While researching the product alginate (used for sculpture molding), I was really surprised to discover that sodium alginate might also neutralize strontium 90 due to its high iodine content and its ability to bind to strontium 90 and excrete it from the body. On this thread I also discovered several other things that might mitigate radiation poisoning and I saved the information because I thought it was interesting and might come in handy one day.
    BETA CAROTENE which is found in root vegetables such as carrots, yams, sweet potatoes, spinach, broccoli, brussels sprouts, tomatoes, and lettuce. Fruit such as cantaloupe, apricots, pumpkin, mangoes, papaya, oranges and peaches also appear to have a mitigating affects of radiation. Look for bright green or orange fruit and vegetables.
    found in grape leaves, fruit and larch wood. Apparently it protects the capillaries and increases liver function. Sulphur is found in eggs.
    SODIUM ALGINATE is found in kelp, hiziki, irish moss, kanten and other sea vegetables.
    SHARK LIVER OIL contains alkylglycerols which appear to penetrate the membranes of cells and it also contains squalene. Olive oil and olives are supposed to be helpful. I think this substance is used before, during and after exposure to radiation.
    POTASSIUM IODIDE is the standard treatment and it works by flooding the thyroid with iodine so that the thyroid cannot readily take up radioactive iodine which is destructive.
    Ca-DTPA and Zn-DTPA Pentetate calcium trisodium and pentetate zinc trisodium are also drugs worth researching as it is fairly new in the field of radiation mitigation.

    I collected these useful tidbits of information last year and so they must be fairly up to date.

    Don't take my word for it, check these things out.

    I am sorry I don't have a reference to the articles as I cut off the web ref. when I stuck the information in my diary. When I see people in dire circumstances I only want to help.

  • Comment number 10.

    Undoubtedly there is a serious situation at Fukushima nuclear plant, but the threat to public health even in Japan is minimal.

    But the world’s media seem to have taken this story way beyond normal reporting and appear to be enjoying proclaiming doom and catastrophe. Even though experts repeatedly explain the limited threat to human health still the journalists hysterically proclaim the dangers of radiation.

    Why is this ?
    Could it be pure scientific ignorance on the part of the journalists and that their irrational fear of an unknown threat is clouding their reports?

    Or could it just be that they enjoy reporting a good disaster and what to increase the drama so that the story sells ? This is not the first situation where facts have been ignored and alarmist reporting has inflated a story into a cry of doom, Avian Flu ?

    Or is this just a manifestation of the dislike of the nuclear industry? In the case of the BBC they certainly have never been a friend of the nuclear industry and have always eulogised over the potential of wind farms. The argument over the best way of generating our energy has not been seriously debated in the media or politically and still the environmentalist groups hold sway with their desires for a brave new world rid of abundant cheap energy .

    Maybe this is a case of all three having a impact on the hysterical reporting, and there are many members of the general public who simply do not have the scientific knowledge to see beyond the hysteria.

  • Comment number 11.

    I watch Japanese TV broadcasting NOW.
    Many local public office people say VERY FEW FOOD,MEDICATION,WATER,ETC.
    Because truck driver refuse to go there.
    The driver said that fear radioactive contamination.
    But there are many trucks.

    The office people stay region where far from 30-130km SOUTH the reactor.
    They help locals who are patient,elderly,child,etc now.
    They sent Fax to Media for ask rescue them by food,etc.

    Why there are so many people in the area can not help until 1 week later of the quake?
    Because people PANIC of radiation and few Media report region from 30-130km SOUTH the reactor.
    All Media focus on near Sendai and Iwate where got Huge Tunami.

    I hope that additional focus on area where from 30-130km SOUTH the reactor.
    These town are southern Fukushima and Ibaraki.

    Media remember population of the area please.

    Fukushima:2 MILLION
    Ibaraki :3 MILLION

    In addition, Do not generate PANIC by Media please.

  • Comment number 12.

    It makes sense to get people out of Japan if it is not their permanent home. The Japanese have only finite resources to assist their own people and a few less of the rest of us will ease that burden. The Japanese could assist in this relocation of non residents by speeding up and fast tracking people who can provide ample evidence of who they are and where they are from by a few clicks of a mouse button. If there really is an issue of radiation, then the faster that relocation process the better. Planes and boats will be willing to collect passengers who do not prove to be a health hazard. Health and safety can easily get in the way of a smooth transition. If the situation improves, perhaps there could be similar fast track system of getting people back to Japan?
    Looking at the clean up operation I was interested in details. How effective is the protective clothing of the majority of key clean up workers? The hazards of sharp objects hidden under dirty water and the risk of infection due to injury must be great in these circumstances. Clean up workers, out in the cold, must have greater energy requirements than those inside in slightly warmer conditions. Do the clean up workers get a proportionally bigger food ration to cope with their energy expenditure? What happens to all of the wood/potential fuel from the destroyed homes? I hope that all of these and many other finer details are being recorded on a globally accessible database for future planning.

  • Comment number 13.

    As far as I can see little mention of released isotopes other than caesium and iodine 131 is being made, these having either little persistence in the body or a short half life respectively.

    However, presumably strontium 90 and iodine 129 are also being emitted, with long half lives and persistence in the body. If criticality resumes and/or fire breaks out then possibly large quantities of radioactive heavy metals such as plutonium will also be released. I can only assume any areas contaminated by these will become uninhabitable and useless for agriculture, as at Chernobyl.

    I have a technical background, yet I have been, wrongly it seems, reassured by the calm confidence of scientists and nuclear engineers as to the dangers only now generally clearly inherent in these plants.

    I did not know that spent fuel needed such closely controlled active maintenance, nor that it was stored under circumstances where this control would be disrupted by incidents elsewhere on site. I can only assume UK plants also have this weakness, as no one has rushed to say they do not.

    Neither did I know that a reactor, once the fission reaction had been shut down, would to continue generating such huge amounts of heat that it would still be more than capable of meltdown, nor that the chemical properties of the metals used, such as zirconium, were such that explosions and fires from non-nuclear causes would almost certainly result from the actions that would almost inevitably be taken in such an emergency. As far as we can see this has happened in 4/4 reactors at Fukishima.

    The silence as to features at British nuclear plants, and whether they are in common with those in Japan has, at least on the BBC, been deafening.

    However, I congratulate Angela Merkel on her prompt and rational response.

    Can we please, therfore, have an authoritative statement as to:

    What the backup cooling facilities for all UK, nay, European reactors are, and their resilience; likewise for spent fuel, and whether there is the potential for mutual disruption between these?

  • Comment number 14.

    Economy of scale rather than public safety, appears to have been the main reason for constructing such a vast nuclear plant on the coast of a country known to be prone to both tsunami & earthquakes. Surely it would have been prudent to put them roughly in the middle of island, away from such distructive tidal surges and to keep them separated, so if one becomes a problem, the others can still be operated while work goes on to bring it back under control. I suspect the spent fuel rods are housed in a concrete pond which now has now cracked & is leaking, three storage reservoirs of cooling fluid using heat pumps to both cool and return it would avoid the need to use salt water and could be diverted where needed. The reservoirs and storage ponds need to be suitably lined so they are unaffected by seimic shock, people before costs!

  • Comment number 15.

    #14 - 2203Robert

    Oh, so nothing to do with the availability of seawater in the event of an emergency?

    UK operational plants are:

    Dungeness B
    Hunterston B
    Heysham 1
    Heysham 2
    Sizewell B

    Retired plants are:

    Calder Hall
    Hunterston A
    Hinkley Point A
    Dungeness A
    Sizewell A

    And what do they all have in common? The ability of the workers to sing "Oh we do like to be beside the seaside?"

    I don't think so.

  • Comment number 16.

    #13 - Eddy from Waring

    Apart, I suppose, from the blindingly obvious fact that the UK is placed in a very geologically stable region of the planet where minor earthquakes are rare and major ones unheard of.

  • Comment number 17.

    16. At 6:00pm on 18 Mar 2011, threnodio_II wrote:

    "....Apart, I suppose, from the blindingly obvious fact that the UK is placed in a very geologically stable region of the planet where minor earthquakes are rare and major ones unheard of..."


    Yes, but it wasn't either earthquake or tsunami damagen to the reactors that caused the crisis in Japan, was it? It was loss of power to the cooling pumps.

    We very much ***do*** have power failures in the UK. Hence my question as to the resilience of the backup facilities (if any) for this eventuality (or failure of the pump itself) here.

  • Comment number 18.

    #17 - Eddy from Waring

    So are you seriously suggesting that the nuclear incident in Japan was an accident waiting to happen and that the natural disaster had nothing to do with it?

  • Comment number 19.

    I'd like to add my voice to those complaining about the way our media portray the disaster; the BBC, Channel4, et al have in common loud and sensational 'reporting' -- totally insensitive and of no help to the Japanese people. why do we have to have so many news 'anchors' with their crews (camera, sound, driver, logistics) belabouring the obvious?

    sensiblegrannie #12.

    "It makes sense to get people out of Japan if it is not their permanent home."

    agree, as long as their transportation doesn't increase the strain on resources. the problem, IMO, are the UK (and French, and other) governments who advise their nationals to leave. As YOU points out in #4, #8, and #11, it is the creating of a panicky atmosphere, by those governments and 'our' media, which is so utterly counter-productive.

  • Comment number 20.

    Eddy from Waring #13.

    "What the backup cooling facilities for all UK, nay, European reactors are, and their resilience.."

    luckily, we in the UK do not need natural disasters to cause accidents which poison our environment, simple negligence is enough:

    "Although the radioactive discharges from Sellafield has been reduced since the mid-seventies, when the discharges where high, the discharge of technesium-99 (Tc-99) has increased considerably since the mid-nineties."

    here's an interesting report on a hypothetical disaster, commissioned last year because, as Norway's Minister of the Environment and International Development Erik Solheim said, "[t]here has been concern about Sellafield for a number of years in Norway, and this is why I asked the Radiation Protection Authority to draw up a report on scenarios for the release of radioactivity from the plant."

  • Comment number 21.

    18. At 6:40pm on 18 Mar 2011, threnodio_II wrote:

    "...So are you seriously suggesting that the nuclear incident in Japan was an accident waiting to happen and that the natural disaster had nothing to do with it?..."


    Now that you mention it, yes the catastrophe (not "incident") in Japan was waiting to happen, but natural (foreseeably inevitable, with time) causes were very much to do with it. But that's not the focus of my post.

    That in relation to which I seek reassurances is this:

    Are the cooling systems for reactors and spent fuels in Europe backed up to the point that failure, leading to a similar disaster here is utterly inconceivable?

    It would not need an earthquake for that, if say, there was only one line of contingency and this were inadequately maintained. A mere power outage could then set events in train.

  • Comment number 22.

    The Fukushima reactor is quite old. Newer reactors are set up so the atomic reaction stops if the reactor loses coolant. See Gregg Easterbrook's editorial:

    Also, this was a GIANT earthquake. The "Big One" that is expected to hit Los Angeles soon is expected to be about magnitude 8. That's 32 times less powerful! This was a once in a millenium earthquake for Japan. The island of Japan moved 8 feet away from Korea!
    It is going to be really impressive if an old, relatively unsafe nuclear reactor goes through an earthquake like this without causing any loss of life from radioactivity. Which seems likely, if they get the power turned on and everything cooled before spent fuel starts burning or whatever. Of course reactors should withstand this huge of an earthquake without having all these problems. But despite all the media hype, what it shows is that nuclear reactors are really pretty safe.
    You know even if the fuel does melt down, it spreads out in a big concrete basin underneath called a core catcher, and when spread out, that slows the chain reaction so it can cool down.

  • Comment number 23.

    correction: Apparently Fukushima was built before core catchers were built into nuclear reactors.

  • Comment number 24.

    Many people very concern this problem.
    I think that this is PANIC just no reasonable.

    People talk about radioactive contamination
    However, the people eat wheat,etc what import from Ukraine.
    There is Chernobyl in Ukraine.

    I know that many people got radioactive contamination in Ukraine unfortunately.

    However, many people visit Ukraine.
    Eat wheat from Ukraine.
    Continue live in UK,EU,US where far from Ukraine after 26 April 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

    UK,EU,US far from Japan about 10,000km.
    UK,EU far from Ukraine about 4,000km.
    Very Few wind reach from Japan.
    US same far from Japan to Ukraine.

    I think that it is not reasonable.
    Radioactive contamination continue very long term.
    Chernobyl disaster happened only 25 years ago.
    I remember that radioactive material spread huge area.
    Few radioactive material got in Japan.

    So far, I never heard that many UK,EU,US,Japan citizen got radioactive sickness by air or food,water what from Ukraine.

    UK,EU,US is OK above reason.
    Therefore, I hope that no sensational report NOW please.
    The report generate small PANIC in Japan.

  • Comment number 25.

    22. At 10:58pm on 18 Mar 2011, Loreav wrote:

    "...The Fukushima reactor is quite old. Newer reactors are set up so the atomic reaction stops if the reactor loses coolant..."


    That was not and is not the problem here. The reactors at Fukushima shut down as planned.

    The problem is the decay heat of fission products, not the fission reaction. This cannot be turned off hence cooling must be maintained even after the reactor has shut down.

    The core spreader is mere damage limitation. If the containment vessel is ruptured and things have gone that far there is already a major disaster. I also gather that there would me a violent chemical reaction between the concrete and the molten core components in that event.

  • Comment number 26.

    Some people my say that there is something wrong with this picture and others may argue that it is indeed floorless. However, It is a long way to Piccadilly from Tokyo to raise funds to help the homeless zombies. Who ponder should I reach for my service revolver or ask the stranger sitting under the iconic image of Eros to get married without asking permission from either of their families, who are also going bald and not grey in their twilight years.

  • Comment number 27.

    Libya has largely replaced Japan on the BBC's website; I guess this is an indication that a nuclear catastrophe isn't so imminent after all. Unfortunately, the few articles left are about iodine tablets being distributed and "Tokyo's Eerie Calm", once again ignoring the voices who pointed out that 1) Japanese people routinely wear face masks in spring to protect against pollen, 2) many Tokyo residents don't go out because of the reduced train service and shops closing early in order to save power, rather than being worried about radiation, and 3) while some Japanese are also leaving, it is mostly foreigners who flee the city. My friend needs to renew her resident's permit, but she's unable to do so because the immigration office is swamped with panicked foreigners applying for re-entry permits before fleeing the country. Given that YOU and several others living in the affected areas have pointed out that scare mongering is costing lives because some rescue workers are now reluctant to enter areas close to Fukushima, one would hope that the media will begin to adopt a more responsible stance from now.

  • Comment number 28.

    Read elsewhere on the BBC site:

    "Nuclear plants in the UK must go ahead", says person who always says "Nuclear plants in the UK must go ahead".

    Not really news, that, I'd say.

  • Comment number 29.

    "What are the immediate health effects of exposure to radiation?"

    100 mSv/yr, Lowest level at which any increase in cancer is clearly evident

    350 mSv/lifetime – “Criterion for relocating people after Chernobyl accident”

    “Several places are known in Iran, India and Europe where natural background radiation gives an annual dose of more than 50 mSv and up to 260 mSv (at Ramsar in Iran). Lifetime doses from natural radiation range up to several thousand millisievert. However, there is no evidence of increased cancers or other health problems arising from these high natural levels”

  • Comment number 30.

    The irony is that those people flying out of tokyo will probably get a bigger does of radiation on the flight than if they had stayed where they were. Once home the background cound be higher than the combined background/contamination count in tokyo.

    The next time you prepare a meal on that nice granite worktop

  • Comment number 31.

    There is the world of difference between a dose of say, 1mSv delivered by external gamma radiation, and the same dose received internally by heavy (alpha) and beta partical emitters ingested through contaminated food, drink or air.

    The chromosome damage caused by the former is largely reparable by the body.

    That caused by the latter is akin to the effects of a bull in a china shop, and is concentrated in the organs where the contaminant resides (the bones in the case of strontium 90).

    The incidence of bone cancer for instance, in luminous watch painters is well documented. Radium too gathers in the bones.

  • Comment number 32.

    The sievert is the SI derived unit of dose equivalent radiation. It attempts to quantitatively evaluate the biological effects of ionizing radiation as opposed to the physical aspects, which are characterised by the absorbed dose, measured in gray

    In essence it does not matter whether it is alpha, beta or gamma radiation, and it does not matter how the radiation is delivered.

  • Comment number 33.

    32. At 6:05pm on 20 Mar 2011, mjmwhite
    Thank you: I should have used bequerels, curies etc. perhaps for my example.


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