See these two updates for more information:
Updated: Answers to Safety Questions About Radiation
What’s Scary about Radiation from Japan
It was bound to happen. The moment Japan revealed the recent earthquake impacted several of its nuclear power stations near the epicenter the comparisons to Chernobyl and Three Mile Island began. While TEPCO’s finest engineers have been focused on relieving pressure building in the reactor vessel and pouring sea water over the reactor cores of several reactors, the pundits have been hard at work broadcasting “news” stories with a high scare factor about the dangers of Japanese radiation. With all of the mixed messages in the media trust in the Japanese government and TEPCO will soon be a casualty. Faced with questions about risks posed by Japan’s radiation release and the safety of personnel working outside, how should risk managers respond?
Radiation, or more accurately ionizing radiation, is a normal occurrence in the environment. People are exposed to ionizing radiation in their normal daily life through sources such as cosmic radiation, contact with soil or naturally occurring radon gas. Routine items and activities such as airplane travel, x-rays, smoke detectors and cooking with natural gas also expose people to small doses of radiation in daily life.
Radiation exposure is measured in a number of ways, but the most common method used around the globe today is the Sievert (Sv). For those familiar with radiation absorbed dose (RADs) or REMs, 100 RADs or REMs is roughly equivalent to 1 Sv. Over the course of a year a person is exposed to natural and manmade sources of ionizing radiation totaling around 0.36 mSv (millisieverts).
The 1979 nuclear incident at the Three Mile Island reactor in Pennsylvania and more recently the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl are examples of both the hysteria and the seriousness of nuclear power incidents. In Pennsylvania, the partial melt down of the reactor core and release of radiation into the atmosphere was extensively studied by both the US Government and independent organizations. A report from the American Nuclear Society indicates the amount of radiation released at Three Mile Island exposed most people living within 10 miles of Three Mile Island to an additional 0.008 mSv with no one receiving more than 0.1 mSv for those closest to the plant. The release spawned an intense media feeding frenzy that limited the growth of nuclear power in the US.
The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, on the other hand, caused widespread nuclear contamination across the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.
Poland, Finland and other countries in Eastern Europe also received radioactive fallout from the catastrophic failure of the reactor. Many deaths and higher rates of cancer can be directly attributed to Chernobyl. The area immediately around Chernobyl remains evacuated even today. For those living around Chernobyl at the time of the nuclear plant explosion UNSCEAR estimates their exposure as 30 mSv initially and an additional 9mSv of exposure in the two decades following the disaster. These radiation doses were far higher (nearly ninety times the normal annual exposure for an individual) than the Three Mile Island incident.
Information on the measured radiation downwind from the ailing nuclear plants in Fukushima prefecture is not readily available from TEPCO or the Japanese government due to the ongoing incident and rapidly changing environment. In a press conference Monday 14-Mar TEPCO did share on site radiation measurements at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant of 3.1 mSv/hr. This exposure level may seem high, but this measurement was taken at the site of the disaster and radiation levels drop off rapidly as distance is increased away from the plant. Barring a catastrophic meltdown of the nuclear fuel and breech of the containment vessel, the amount of ionizing radiation released into the atmosphere will likely be small. For all those focusing on hyped media reports that “radiation could reach the west coast of the US”, these predictions are likely correct – minute amounts of ionizing radiation will reach the US, but the impact will be unnoticed due to the existing levels of background radiation that people are already exposed to on a daily basis.
In 1941 Frank Mott outlined the characteristics of “Yellow Journalism”:
- Scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news;
- Lavish use of pictures;
- Use of misleading headlines, pseudo science, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts;
- Emphasis on full-color Sunday supplements (this criteria does not directly apply to our modern television coverage); and,
- Dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against the system.
Do you see any of these in the current media coverage of the nuclear incident in Japan?