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January 31, 2015

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Should Nevadans worry about Japanese radiation cloud?

Experts say radiation from crippled nuclear reactors pose little health risk to those in United States


GeoEye Satellite Image / AP

This satellite image provided by Geoeye shows the Fukushima Dai Ichi nuclear power plant taken Thursday, March 17, 2011. Japan reached out today to the U.S. for help in stabilizing its overheated, radiation-leaking nuclear complex, while the U.N. atomic energy chief called the disaster a race against the clock that demands global cooperation.

KSNV: Diaster In Japan

KSNV coverage of the disaster in Japan.

Don’t panic.

If you ask a scientist who specializes in radiochemistry about the health risks associated with the radiation plume from Japan’s crippled nuclear reactors reaching the United States, those are the words you’ll most likely hear.

Officials say the problem is that some Americans have been panicked — especially those on the West Coast — since last week’s earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan and heavily damaged several nuclear reactors.

The New York Times reported that the United Nations projected the radiation plume would hit Southern California today, though health risks are extremely minor at worst.

Eric Matus, a radiation physicist for the Nevada State Health Division, Radiation Control Program, said he and his team have been receiving 30 to 40 phone calls a day from people worried about their safety and whether they need to buy radio-protectant drugs like potassium iodide.

And since the Times report, the calls have increased, he said.

“Today, the calls have been focused on the Times report that came out that said there was a plume that was going to hit California,” Matus said Thursday. “All of that information is bogus. It’s not based on any scientific fact. It’s things that people have conjured up using hypotheticals for other purposes.”

He said the federal government has not been aggressive enough in getting the facts to the public.

“The federal agencies have not stepped up and put someone in front of a camera every day to send the message,” Matus said. “It’s forced the national cable news media to put on whatever talking head feels like getting on camera that day. Some of them are pushing their own agenda.”

What Matus and Ralf Sudowe, UNLV assistant professor of health physics and radiochemistry, want to drive home is this: There is absolutely nothing for those in North America to worry about.

“There is a chance that some radioactive material might make it this far. Maybe just enough that we can detect it,” Sudowe said. “Even if small amounts of radioactive materials did get here, it is nowhere near the amount you would require to see any health consequences.”

“Every little bit of distance between the accident site and us dilutes the effect of the fallout,” he said. “The further [radiation] travels, the more it comes into contact with fresh air and the concentration just becomes smaller and smaller.”

Even though any radiation on its way is relatively miniscule, that hasn’t stopped inquiries about purchasing potassium iodide pills to combat radioactive iodine.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending people in the U.S. not take the supplement. It can have side effects including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, acne and thyroid problems.

“It’s just not a reasonable scenario for [potassium iodide] to be necessary,” Matus said.

The Union of Concerned Scientists agrees. Based out of Cambridge, Mass., the union recently issued a statement saying that Japan should be first in line for potassium iodide pills.

“It is highly unlikely that Americans would be exposed to radioacitive iodine from direct inhalation of a plume from the Fukushima nuclear complex,” the statement said. “There are reports that global supplies of potassium iodide pills are being depleted because Americans are buying them, prompting fears that there will not be adequate supplies in Japan in the event of a larger radiological release.”

Nevada Test Site, Yucca Mountain and McCarran International Airport — causes for concern?

The disaster in Japan may leave some Nevadans wondering if the Nevada Test Site, used for testing nuclear devices in southeastern Nye County, is safe, especially in the event of an earthquake.

The message from the experts, again — don’t panic.

“Nowhere in Nevada do we store spent nuclear fuel. We don’t have fuel pools and we don’t have reactors,” Matus said. “It’s really an apples-to-oranges comparison. We don’t blow things up anymore, so since we don’t detonate nuclear weapons here, this sort of scenario of a catastrophic release is not a possibility.”

The incident in Japan has also raised concerns about Yucca Mountain and prompted many in Washington to put serious thought into the safety of nuclear energy.

In addition, some concerns have been raised about flights from Japan somehow being contaminated with radiation. With one post on its Facebook page, McCarran International Airport quelled those fears.

“It’s important to note that there has been no direct commercial air service scheduled between Japan and Las Vegas for more than four years,” the post said.

Matus, in a press release issued Thursday from the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, said the Department of Homeland Security has increased radiation screening of international travelers, luggage and cargo.

“So far, no radiation levels of concern have been discovered,” Matus said.

The best course of action

Officials say the best plan is to be prepared, not just for a nuclear emergency, but for any type of disaster.

“If you’re worried about your safety, then I would focus on your standard disaster preparedness plans,” Matus said.

“Make sure you understand evacuation procedures, family communication, have non-perishable food and water on hand,” he said. “The advice we give to people to prepare for an earthquake is very good advice to prepare for any type of disaster.”

Sudowe, meanwhile, said the best course of action is to stay informed. “The most important words from ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ — don’t panic,” Sudowe said.

For more information and updates, check the CDC or Nevada State Health Division websites. Also, the Nevada State Health Division, Radiation Control Program, is the lead state agency for such events and may be reached at 775-687-7550.

Sun reporters Karoun Demirjian in Washington and Cy Ryan in Carson City contributed to this report.

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  1. Fine story that I wish weren't a story at all, i.e. never happened. As usual, the Sun brings interesting information to the community.

  2. Look at the down-winders in Utah. The effect is less, but the amount to trigger cancer is ill-defined.

    The Howard Hughes movie the "Conqueror" with John Wayne and "I Want to Live" Susan Hayward, had 90 of the 220 crew and cast members die of cancer.

    We should condemn X-GOVO "Mothra" List and Danny the "Nukes" Tarkanian for their views. Also, the Heritage Foundation had hate talk radio hater Sean "Insanity" Hannity parroting a tract on Yucca. They never give up do they?

    I was also shocked and dismayed when local loco hate talk station KXNT, had Hannity interrupting the President's speech on Japan. Important information was given to the public about the radiation and donations to the Japanese people, and Hannity keep making snide remarks during the speech. To think they call themselves a "News" Station. The manager out there should be ashamed. Thank God the Sun gets the News out.

  3. You live where the nuclear clouds settled from the above ground tests and you want to panic from something that cant get here, be my guest panic and run back to wherver you came from and let the good jobs come back to NEVADA.

  4. @mred;

    "I was also shocked and dismayed when local loco hate talk station KXNT, had Hannity interrupting the President's speech on Japan. Important information was given to the public about the radiation and donations to the Japanese people, and Hannity keep making snide remarks during the speech. To think they call themselves a "News" Station. The manager out there should be ashamed. Thank God the Sun gets the News out."

    I'll second that...
    From the FCC:

    In exchange for obtaining a valuable license to operate a broadcast station using the public airwaves, each radio and television licensee is required by law to operate its station in the "public interest, convenience and necessity." This means that it must air programming that is responsive to the needs and problems of its local community of license.

    More info:

  5. If it was any problem at all for those of us in the Western U.S. (Thousands of miles away), Don't you think we'd be hearing about devastating results in Tokyo, less than 200 miles away?
    While the reactor damage is not good, it is more of a hazard to the people living in Japan than it will ever be to us, due to distance.
    If those potassium pills are of any help at all to those exposed, they should be sent to the people in Japan who need them. It is amazing how many panic ridden Americans are lining up to buy the pills, no doubt at very recently substantially increased prices.
    mred, for one who does not like conservative talk radio, you sure seem to be tuned in to it a lot.