SATURDAY, March 12 (HealthDay News) -- Japanese officials said
Saturday that the risk of a radiation leak was declining at a
nuclear power plant severely damaged by the powerful earthquake and
tsunami that rocked the country Friday.
An explosion destroyed the exterior walls of the building that
enveloped the reactor, but not the actual metal housing encasing
the reactor, said a government spokesman, the
Associated Press reported.
The nuclear plant was damaged by Friday's devastating double
blow that pounded Japan's northeastern coast, leaving at least 686
people dead, according to an official count. But local media
reports said at least 1,300 people may have been killed, the
The government spokesman, Yukio Edano, said radiation around the
Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, 170 miles northeast of Tokyo, had not
risen since the blast and had actually decreased, but he did not
say why. But the situation was worrisome enough that officials
pumped seawater into the reactor to avoid potentially catastrophic
overheating and moved 170,000 people from the area, the news
Almost any increase in released radiation can raise long-term
cancer rates, and authorities were planning to distribute iodine to
residents in the area, according to the International Atomic Energy
Agency. Iodine counteracts the effects of radiation, the
Although the government spokesman downplayed the risk of
radiation leakage, a Japanese nuclear agency spokesman, Shinji
Kinjo, acknowledged there were still fears of a meltdown. A
"meltdown" isn't a technical term, but instead a layman's way of
describing a serious collapse of a power plant's systems and
ability to control temperatures, the
Yaroslov Shtrombakh, a Russian nuclear expert, said a
Chernobyl-style meltdown was unlikely. "It's not a fast reaction
like at Chernobyl," he said. "I think that everything will be
contained within the grounds, and there will be no big
catastrophe," the news service reported.
Radiation expert Jacqueline Williams, a research professor in
the department of radiation oncology at the University of Rochester
in New York, said depending on the type of explosion, there could
be a radiation risk to those at the plant.
"Anybody who is going in will be exposed to radiation -- and it will be whole-body," she said. "That's where you can get a lot of injuries to emergency personnel and maintenance personnel, depending on the degree of protection they go in with," she added.
High levels of radiation can be lethal because "radiation
disrupts your cells and you die," she said.
The danger to people outside the immediate area could come from
inhaling radioactive particles, Williams said. The type of
radiation released into the air depends on the type of fuel used at
a plant, she added.
Often the big components of released radiation are radioactive
iodine and radioactive cesium, Williams said.
Breathing in or eating food contaminated with radioactive iodine
can cause thyroid cancer. Food can become contaminated as the
radioactive dust settles on crops and even grass that cows or other
animals eat, she explained.
Radioactive cesium can cause more damage long-term, including
cancer, lung and other health problems, Williams said.
How far the radioactivity might spread would depend on weather
conditions such as wind and rain, Williams said. These factors also
need to be taken into account when deciding how far to move people
from potential danger.
"The best protection from radiation is to get inside," she said. "Get something between you and the radiation."
In addition, all food should be washed and people should avoid
any contaminated milk and meat. Radiation can also affect the water
supply, Williams said.
"If it affects the water supply, then you are in more serious trouble," she said.
In Tokyo late Saturday afternoon, word of the explosion prompted
people to hoard supplies of bottled water, the
Washington Post reported.
"I saw a chain letter e-mail from my friend telling about the explosion in Fukushima," said one shopper who, as is the custom, wanted only to give his first name, Masahito. "Right now they're saying it's a nuclear accident. I have been trying to buy enough water for one week, just in case, but I can't find it anywhere. I've already been to four places, including a supermarket."
Williams noted that Japan relies on nuclear power for much of
its energy needs, since it has no natural power resources. "But
they are in an earthquake-prone area, and they have nuclear power
stations where they shouldn't be," she said.
For more on the health risks of nuclear radiation, visit the
University of Pittsburgh.