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Will Japan's leaking nuclear power plant endanger the U.S. Pacific Coast?

Worried about radiation?

Workers at the stricken Japanese nuclear plant dumped radioactive water into the ocean to make room for storing even more highly contaminated water on the site. The dumping came after earlier leaks of radioactive water that had already raised concerns about its effects in the ocean, raising questions about health and safety. Here are answers to some of those questions:

Can the radioactive water leaking from the Japanese nuclear plant eventually reach the United States and be hazardous?

It's hard to say how that water will move, because it will spread not only on the surface but downward in deep layers of the Pacific Ocean. If it does reach the West Coast, it would probably take at least 18 months to three years, by one estimate. In any case, nobody expects it would pose a radiation hazard upon arrival because of tremendous dilution along the way. Airborne radioactive particles have already reached the United States, but federal authorities say the measured levels aren't dangerous.

Weren't the workers at the nuclear plant treated for burns after coming into contact with radioactive water? What if someone swam in the ocean off the coast of Japan?

The kind of radiation levels the workers experienced cause sunburn-like burns in about a half-hour to an hour. But swimming near the plant is banned, and radiation levels of water dumped in the ocean decline quickly with distance from the complex.

What radioactive elements are leaking and what are the risks?

Measurements so far have focused mostly on iodine and cesium, which were responsible for most of the radiation dose to the public at Chernobyl. Radiation from iodine-131 dissipates quickly, falling by half every eight days, so that it's virtually gone in 80 days. Its danger is that if inhaled or swallowed it can concentrate in the thyroid and cause cancer. Cesium radiation sticks around much longer, taking 30 years to decline by half and 300 years to virtually disappear. Cesium can build up in the body, and high levels are thought to be a risk for various cancers. Still, researchers who studied Chernobyl could not find an increase in cancers that might be linked to cesium.

Will ocean creatures be harmed by the discharges of the radioactive water?

Experts say animals very near the plant may face problems like higher rates of genetic mutations, but that this would probably only happen within a half a mile or so.

Associated Press

Will Japan's leaking nuclear power plant endanger the U.S. Pacific Coast?

04/06/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 6, 2011 10:29pm]
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