There are a bunch of scare-mongers flying around right now on the Internet claiming that the Japanese reactor situation is about to poison the West Coast with extremely high levels of radiation.
Some of them are making claims that 750 rads of radiation is expected to reach the United States and that one should either be prepared to or outright begin taking potassium iodide as a prophylaxis against what is otherwise certain radiation poisoning.
Let's dispel a few myths and spike the scare-mongers:
I've been sent several copies of "fright night" nuclear nonsense personally in an attempt, I presume, to get me to jump on the bandwagon and either drive sales of Potassium Iodide tablets or worse, to frighten the hell out of people.
This is all crap - period. Throw those emails, if you receive them, in the trash. Similarly posts on conspiracy boards (and you know which ones I'm talking about) are utter and complete garbage; if they're allowing this crap to be posted with impunity you have to question everything else on those systems.
First, dose is strongly determined by distance as the material dissipates. What is expelled in an accident (or bomb detonation) is basically dust particles of radioactive material. The dust itself is made up of the radioactive substance, air is not and does not become radioactive. The dust settles out onto the ground over time and the closer you are to the source the more of it settles there; larger particles come out first and closest, with smaller ones being more-dispersed.
Even in the worst-case scenario where the core of the reactor was to be completely exposed to atmosphere and burn to exhaustion (much like what happened at Chernobyl) a 750 rad exposure level thousands of miles away, killing everyone, is literally hundreds of times the exposure that would occur. At Chernobyl there were clusters of heightened cancer found hundreds or thousands of miles away, but this is very different from a claimed 750 rad exposure level - which would have killed literally everyone.
To put this in perspective when Chernobyl blew up locations about 600 miles downwind got exposures of 10-100 times the background rate, and the higher value only persisted for a short time. That sounds bad, but it really isn't much. The total dose per person in eastern Europe and places like Helsinki, which was directly downwind of the plume, was about 0.5 rads over the first few weeks, or roughly double the usual expected annual dose.
That's bad, but it's not the sort of catastrophe that everyone is screaming about being imminent, and Chernobyl is about as bad as it gets when you start talking about industrial nuclear accidents.
Note that a "Rad" is an absolute unit but not the biological effect. They are only interchangeable if you are dealing with gamma rays; that is, "1 rad" = "1 rem" (about) for gamma emissions. If you're taking fast neutrons, however, "1 rad" = "10 rem" - that is, fast neutrons are much more harmful (unit-per-unit) than gamma emissions. Most of the "things" we worry about in terms of exposure, however, emit gamma rays (and not neutrons.) One exception is polonium, which emits alpha particles - alpha emitters are very dangerous if ingested, about 20 times as much as a gamma source of equivalent "count." Don't break open and eat your smoke detector, basically.
A "rem", incidentally, is a very large unit of exposure. Background exposure to radiation (natural sources) is usually in the area of 300 or so millirems (thousandths of a rem) annually.
So with these facts in mind, let's evaluate.
First, Japan is a hell of a lot further from the West Coast than is Helsinki from Chernobyl. Second, Cherenobyl was pretty-much a worst-case accident where pretty-much the entire core burned up and released its products into the atmosphere. What we have at this point is a very minor (by comparison) release of reaction products in steam. As the reactor has now been subscritical for quite a while even if it was to catastrophically lose containment odds are that the ability of the fuel to ignite and burn in this fashion would be greatly reduced and may no longer exist.
But let's assume that the reactor did indeed blow its top and all the containment measures failed. Even so, the radiation reaching the West Coast would not reach the sort of levels that comprise an imminent risk to health. In Japan, especially parts of Japan that happened to be downwind of the plant when it happened, yes. There you'd simply be nuts not to take Potassium Iodide to block your thyroid even though the acute exposure risk would be quite material - and impossible to block successfully (except by sheltering away from it until it dissipated to a reasonably-safe level.)
If someone can show me a credible atmospheric dissipation model that brings any material dose of radioactive iodine across the Pacific and into the West Coast I'm all ears. Thus much I can tell you with certainty though - there's no way we're going to take 750 rads of exposure over a short period of time in the United States.
The situation in Japan with their reactors is serious. But we do much harm to our discourse when we pay attention to the scaremongers and give them a voice. These people are not interested in public health or honest information - they're running their schemes and scams with an intent to either drive a political agenda or profit from unbridled and unreasonable fear.
Radiation is all around us all of the time. Most of it is natural. There are man-made sources and this is, potentially, one of them. But there is no reason to believe under any credible scenario, even if all control of the reactors were to be lost and containment rendered entirely useless, that the Japanese reactor accidents could irradiate any part of the United States, including the west coast, with a blanket of radioactive particles that would be materially dangerous to your health.
Don't fall for the scaremongering.
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