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Radiation fallout poses no significant risk to Bay Area

March 16, 2011 7:13:19 PM PDT
There is a minute by minute crisis at a severely damaged nuclear plant in Japan. Emergency workers are risking their lives to prevent a complete nuclear meltdown. Crews dropped water from helicopters at the same time workers used water cannons meant for riots, to shoot water directly into one of the reactors. It's a desperate, last-ditch effort to keep spent nuclear fuel rods from melting. In a potentially troubling sign, white steam was seen rising from three of the reactors on Wednesday afternoon (Pacific Time).

Radiation levels at the plant have been dangerously high. Japan's electric company is working desperately to reconnect power at the plant.

Because of the severity of the nuclear crisis across the Pacific, some people in the Bay Area are very worried about the potential for radiation poisoning in California, even though scientists insist there's no real reason to worry.

The catastrophic situation in Japan has Americans worrying about their own safety. They hear about this radioactivity, they are concerned about the East-West jet stream and wind patterns. To minimize those fears, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is deploying 40 more radiation monitors around the Pacific Rim. They will supplement the permanent ones in San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento. Anyone can access the data; just log in and create a password. It allows you to see for yourself what independent scientists are saying -- that there is no spike in radiation in the Bay Area.

Meantime, independent scientists are speaking out, as well.

When asked if the Bay Area was in danger, UC Berkeley environmental scientist Kirk Smith, Ph.D., said, "No, I'd say no."

That word came from an assessment of a Californian with family, who's not leaving here. And he's more of an expert than the rest of us, because as Smith watches Japan's trauma, it's through the eyes of an environmental health scientist with a specialty in nuclear contamination.

"I think you will get this from the academic scientists, almost uniformly, that it is not a zero risk, but not a significant risk," said Smith.

At least, not in the Bay Area. For contaminants to cover California, they would need to reach the jet stream and this was not as nuclear explosion, nor was it like Chernobyl.

"There is not enough heat to drive it up. It will be hot on the ground, it will be hot in the area, it will be radioactive for miles around the site, but not an explosion, it's not going to rise high enough in the atmosphere to spread to the West Coast of the United States," said Joe Cirincione, from the Plowshares Fund.

But, according to industry expert Joe Cirincione, Japan is in for a tougher time of it.

"In the medium worst-case scenario, we'd would be talking about hundreds, maybe 1,000 square kilometers rendered inhabitable forever," said Cirincione.

It is ironic that the world bases much of its radiation standards from Japanese research based long term studies from atomic bomb survivors. Of anyone in Japan, workers trying to save those plants may fare the worst, long term.

"The official standards for workers are 50 times greater than what we allow the public, so that gives you an illustration of how much extra risk we expect those guys to take for us," said Smith.

It's worth noting that after Chernobyl, the Russian Army sent some 60,000 troops into the plant for the clean-up. Why so many? Because they worked in short shifts, they absorbed their limits of radiation, and then moved out. Japan may have to do the same.


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