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“Right now it’s worse than Three Mile Island,” Olander said, but isn’t near the Chernobyl situation. Some radioactive iodine was released before the latest crisis Tuesday. Iodine is relatively short-lived, and potassium iodide pills can be used to block its uptake.

Of greater concern is the release of cesium, which officials had said was released in small amounts earlier. Cesium is absorbed throughout the body _ not just by the thyroid _ and stays in organs, tissue and the environment much longer, Mettler explained.

Cesium particles are relatively large and heavy, so they would not likely travel far in a plume. Much of it would drop near the reactor site, and officials hope, may be carried by winds east over the Pacific Ocean where it would fall harmlessly, Mettler said.

Any release of cesium is a concern environmentally and for health, said Jacqueline Williams, a radiation biologist and safety expert at the University of Rochester Medical Center in upstate New York.

“Prior to Chernobyl, we believed that the cesium would be diluted out, that once the cloud went through and it rained, the cesium would be washed out. What we found out was there was an accumulation of cesium in certain types of vegetation, and it accumulated rather than diluted,” she said.

Animals fed on the vegetation and became contaminated, and meat and milk were affected.

“You can’t be quite so blase about the fallout,” Williams said.

At Three Mile Island, however, “the public health risk was close to zero because the radiation was contained within the site itself,” Williams said.

Mettler agreed. The research he led in Russia documented 6,000 to 7,000 additional cases of thyroid cancer in people who were children and teens when Chernobyl occurred, “and there are questionable increases of leukemia in the cleanup workers but it’s not certain.”

And were there long-lasting problems from Three Mile Island?

“Not that most of the scientific community believes,” Mettler said.

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Online:

EPA: http://1.usa.gov/gt46aP

NRC: http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/radiation/rad-health-effects.html

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