The Japanese people could well be the world's most prepared people in coping with a nuclear power plant accident, a U.S. expert on radiation poisoning said Tuesday.
"When it comes to the medical effects of ionizing radiation, if any population understands these biological effects, it certainly is the Japanese population," said Richard L. Morin, chairman of the safety committee of the American College of Radiology.
"The level of consciousness, I think, is very, very high," said Mr. Morin, who teaches radiological physics at the Mayo Clinic.
The March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out the cooling system of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. It has since suffered damage to four of its six reactors, and struggled with a fire yesterday. Japanese officials ordered an immediate evacuation around the plant, and now ask anyone within a 30-kilometer radius to stay inside and seal their shelters.
Mr. Morin said the fire appears to be the biggest hazard because it sent radioactive particulates into the air.
"That's why the press has many pictures of radiation workers in [hazardous material] suits with instruments trying to measure" radioactivity on people, Mr. Morin said.
External contamination "really is not that bad," he said, because very few particulates would fall on any one person.
"It can be cleaned up. … There are very good ways to get rid of what essentially looks like dust" on a person's clothing, he added.
Affected persons would also scrub their skin and wash their hair.
Medical and other facilities that work with radioactive materials are familiar with these actions, he said.
The deeper concern, especially with larger releases like those from the Dai-ichi plant, "is internal contamination," in which a person inhales or ingests radioactive materials.
The Japanese government has already distributed potassium iodide pills, Mr. Morin noted. The pills act by saturating the thyroid gland and blocking absorption of iodine-131 from the particulates; after taking the pills, any ingested radioactive materials "will just be passed through their system," said Mr. Morin. Thyroid cancer is a primary, long-term health concern in radiation exposure.
The Japanese government has been regularly updating the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) on the status of the Dai-ichi plant.
Wednesday afternoon, a full team of nuclear experts from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is scheduled to arrive in Japan. The experts will assist in the safe shutdown of the Japanese reactors and assess the impact of radioactive releases on the people and the environment, the agency said.
Earlier this week, Japanese authorities told the IAEA that two of the Dai-ichi units reached a peak of 400 millisieverts per hour - a dangerous level. Radiation doses are typically expressed in millisievert (mSv), which is one-thousandth of a sievert. A chest X-ray, for instance, gives about 0.2 mSv of radiation dose.
Later readings were far lower, at 11.9 millisieverts per hour and 0.6 millisieverts, according to the World Nuclear News.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledges military personnel's potential exposure to dangerous ionizing radiation and has named thyroid cancer and many other cancers as a "presumptive disease" that allows for automatic disability compensation.
The World Nuclear Association, an industry trade group, has reviewed several of the most well-known nuclear disasters.
The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pa., experienced equipment failures within its walls in 1979. Very low levels of radiation were released, and vulnerable people within a five-mile radius of the plant were evacuated. Multiple lawsuits were dismissed after subsequent studies found no evidence of injuries.
In 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine experienced a reactor explosion and released radiation into neighboring areas. About 24,000 people living within 15 kilometers received an average 450 millisieverts of radiation.
Out of 134 severely exposed Russian workers, 28 died within three months and another 19 died between 1987 and 2004 from different causes. Radiation fallout displaced 336,000 persons. Thyroid cancer cases rose among "Chernobyl children," but their survival rate was almost 99 percent.
According to later studies on the 1945 atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some 76,000 persons were exposed to radiation levels up to 5,000 millisieverts. Experts suggested that this exposure led to several hundred additional cancer deaths than what would have been expected in the population.
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