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Friday, March 18, 2011 | 9:47 a.m.
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.