Fukushima Plume to Reach Continental U.S. Friday

by on March 16th, 2011 0 comments

Screencap from the New York Times

The New York Times just published a story in which it obtained the projected course of the radiation plume from Fukushima I plant.

If current weather holds, the plume is projected to reach the Aleutian Islands on Thursday (tomorrow) and California on Friday, but by the time it reaches the U.S. the effects should be detectable but not harmful.

This sounds 100% reasonable based on everything I know about the crisis, but to be fair, in coming to that conclusion, it’s my opinion the New York Times is meeting the US Government way more than halfway. The last NRC projection levels were from Sunday, before a whole lot of things happened.

The projection itself did not include information about radiation levels. Those come from the NRC, but are maddeningly unspecific and, most importantly, did I mention they are from Sunday?

I’m not suggesting there will be harmful health results from the plume. I can’t possibly know. I’m not a scientist or a doctor. But I sincerely doubt there will be any harmful effects. Everything I know about Fukushima and Chernobyl — which is the only real case to compare it to (since Fukushima long since left Three Mile Island behind) says there will not any detectable health results from the plume.

But wouldn’t it be awfully nice to hear that from the government the day before the plume hits the Aleutians? Which would have been today?

The projection of the plume’s path was generated by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, which “routinely does radiation projections in an effort to understand which of its global stations to activate for monitoring the worldwide ban on nuclear arms testing. It has more than 60 stations that sniff the air for radiation spikes and uses weather forecasts and powerful computers to model the transport of radiation on the winds.” The Organization declined to release the report from the Fukushima event, but it was distributed to its member states. The New York Times obtained the projection “through other sources.”

More from the Times:

Health and nuclear experts emphasize that radiation in the plume will be diluted as it travels and, at worst, would have extremely minor health consequences in the United States, even if hints of it are ultimately detectable. In a similar way, radiation from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 spread around the globe and reached the West Coast of the United States in 10 days, its levels measurable but minuscule.

On Sunday, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it expected that no “harmful levels of radioactivity” would travel from Japan to the United States “given the thousands of miles between the two countries.”…

…[The] forecast shows that the radioactive plume will probably miss the agency’s monitoring stations at Midway and in the Hawaiian Islands but is likely to be detected in the Aleutians and at a monitoring station in Sacramento.

The forecast assumes that radioactivity in Japan is released continuously and forms a rising plume. It ends with the plume heading into Southern California and the American Southwest, including Nevada, Utah and Arizona. The plume would have continued eastward if the United Nations scientists had run the projection forward.

The chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory B. Jaczko, said Monday that the plume posed no danger to the United States. “You just aren’t going to have any radiological material that, by the time it traveled those large distances, could present any risk to the American public,” he said in a White House briefing.

Mr. Jaczko was asked if the meltdown of a core of one of the reactors would increase the chance of harmful radiation reaching Hawaii or the West Coast.

“I don’t want to speculate on various scenarios,” he replied. “But based on the design and the distances involved, it is very unlikely that there would be any harmful impacts.”

…In Germany on Wednesday, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection held a news conference that described the threat from the Japanese plume as trifling and said there was no need for people to take iodine tablets. The pills can prevent poisoning from the atmospheric release of iodine-131, a radioactive byproduct of nuclear plants. The United States is also carefully monitoring and forecasting the plume’s movements. The agencies include the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy.


You will occasionally find wacky official-looking reports on the web that Chernobyl caused a million deaths. That is ridiculous. Sure would be nice to hear that from the government, though — but they’re busy being vague.

A somewhat less crazy assertion is that one million people were affected by the Chernobyl radiation. The World Nuclear Association, a pro-nuclear organization based in the UK, said that. Just to be agonizingly clear, this is what they said in their report on Chernobyl:

Subsequent studies in the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus were based on national registers of over one million people possibly affected by radiation. By 2000, about 4000 cases of thyroid cancer had been diagnosed in exposed children. However, the rapid increase in thyroid cancers detected suggests that some of it at least is an artefact of the screening process. Thyroid cancer is usually not fatal if diagnosed and treated early.

This is the most important part: Even if the amount of material and the radiation released were the same as Chernobyl, the areas comparable to Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus in this case are all over the Pacific Ocean. There are almost certainly people living there, but it’s apparently going to miss the part of the Pacific with a large(ish) number of islands.

Here’s what Wikipedia says about the distribution of radiation from Chernobyl; I glanced at the refs for them and they seem to be more or less on scale. Wikipedia:

Four hundred times more radioactive material was released than had been by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. However, compared to the total amount released by nuclear weapons testing during the 1950s and 1960s, the Chernobyl disaster released 1/100 to 1/1000 the radioactivity. The fallout was detected over all of Europe except for the Iberian Peninsula….

…Contamination from the Chernobyl accident was scattered irregularly depending on weather conditions. Reports from Soviet and Western scientists indicate that Belarus received about 60% of the contamination that fell on the former Soviet Union. However, the 2006 TORCH report stated that half of the volatile particles had landed outside Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. A large area in Russia south of Bryansk was also contaminated, as were parts of northwestern Ukraine. Studies in surrounding countries indicate that over one million people could have been affected by radiation….

That is the source of the the one million “affected by radiation” claim — they were all in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. The comparative area here is the Pacific Ocean, even if the amount of radiation and radioactive material were the same.

And you know, I’ve been thinking…

…Wouldn’t it be nice to hear all this from the government?

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