Fukushima radioactive fallout nears Chernobyl levels
17:14 24 March 2011 by Debora MacKenzie
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Japan's damaged nuclear plant in Fukushima has been emitting radioactive iodine and caesium at levels approaching those seen in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Austrian researchers have used a worldwide network of radiation detectors – designed to spot clandestine nuclear bomb tests – to show that iodine-131 is being released at daily levels 73 per cent of those seen after the 1986 disaster. The daily amount of caesium-137 released from Fukushima Daiichi is around 60 per cent of the amount released from Chernobyl.
The difference between this accident and Chernobyl, they say, is that at Chernobyl a huge fire released large amounts of many radioactive materials, including fuel particles, in smoke. At Fukushima Daiichi, only the volatile elements, such as iodine and caesium, are bubbling off the damaged fuel. But these substances could nevertheless pose a significant health risk outside the plant.
The organisation set up to verify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) has a global network of air samplers that monitor and trace the origin of around a dozen radionuclides, the radioactive elements released by atomic bomb blasts – and nuclear accidents. These measurements can be combined with wind observations to track where the radionuclides come from, and how much was released.
The level of radionuclides leaking from Fukushima Daiichi has been unclear, but the CTBT air samplers can shed some light, says Gerhard Wotawa of Austria's Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics in Vienna.
For the first two days after the accident, the wind blew east from Fukushima towards monitoring stations on the US west coast; on the third day it blew south-west over the Japanese monitoring station at Takasaki, then swung east again. Each day, readings for iodine-131 at Sacramento in California, or at Takasaki, both suggested the same amount of iodine was coming out of Fukushima, says Wotawa: 1.2 to 1.3 × 1017 becquerels per day.
The agreement between the two "makes us confident that this is accurate", he says. So do similar readings at CTBT stations in Alaska, Hawaii and Montreal, Canada – readings at the latter, at least, show that the emissions have continued.
In the 10 days it burned, Chernobyl put out 1.76 × 1018 becquerels of iodine-131, which amounts to only 50 per cent more per day than has been calculated for Fukushima Daiichi. It is not yet clear how long emissions from the Japanese plant will continue.
Similarly, says Wotawa, caesium-137 emissions are on the same order of magnitude as at Chernobyl. The Sacramento readings suggest it has emitted 5 × 1015 becquerels of caesium-137 per day; Chernobyl put out 8.5 × 1016 in total – around 70 per cent more per day.
"This is not surprising," says Wotawa. "When the fuel is damaged there is no reason for the volatile elements not to escape," and the measured caesium and iodine are in the right ratios for the fuel used by the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. Also, the Fukushima plant has around 1760 tonnes of fresh and used nuclear fuel on site, and an unknown amount has been damaged. The Chernobyl reactor had only 180 tonnes.
The amounts being released, he says, are "entirely consistent" with the relatively low amounts of caesium and iodine being measured in soil, plants and water in Japan, because so much has blown out to sea. The amounts crossing the Pacific to places like Sacramento are vanishingly small – they were detected there because the CTBT network is designed to sniff out the tiniest traces.
The Chernobyl accident emitted much more radioactivity and a wider diversity of radioactive elements than Fukushima Daiichi has so far, but it was iodine and caesium that caused most of the health risk – especially outside the immediate area of the Chernobyl plant, says Malcolm Crick, secretary of a United Nations body that has just reviewed the health effects of Chernobyl. Unlike other elements, he says, they were carried far and wide by the wind.
Moreover the human body absorbs iodine and caesium readily. "Essentially all the iodine or caesium inhaled or swallowed crosses into the blood," says Keith Baverstock, former head of radiation protection for the World Health Organization's European office, who has studied Chernobyl's health effects.
Iodine is rapidly absorbed by the thyroid, and leaves only as it decays radioactively, with a half-life of eight days. Caesium is absorbed by muscles, where its half-life of 30 years means that it remains until it is excreted by the body. It takes between 10 and 100 days to excrete half of what has been consumed.
While in the body the isotopes' radioactive emissions can do significant damage, mainly to DNA. Children who ingest iodine-131 can develop thyroid cancer 10 or more years later; adults seem relatively resistant. A study published in the US last week found that iodine-131 from Chernobyl is still causing new cases of thyroid cancer to appear at an undiminished rate in the most heavily affected regions of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
Caesium-137 lingers in the environment because of its long half-life. Researchers are divided over how much damage environmental exposure to low doses has done since Chernobyl. Some researchers think it could still cause thousands of new cases of cancer across Europe.
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