Robert Kelley, a U.S. atomic engineer based in Vienna, says simple measures including staying indoors, taking iodide tablets and wearing long-sleeved clothes and hats will protect people in Japan if there is a major radiation leak from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant.
Kelley worked for 30 years at the Department of Energy, and was in charge of nuclear emergency response at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He replied by e-mail to questions from Bloomberg News today.
On the variety of threats:
“There is naturally a great deal of concern about radiation exposure to the plant staff and to civilians. The subject is complex, but it can be simplified. Let’s look at the three concerns
- Direct radiation exposure from the reactor
- Contamination from radioactive dust on clothes and skin
- Getting internal radiation contamination from dust or
On the heroism of the Tokyo Electric workers at the plant:
‘‘The first concern is about exposure to what is happening at the site itself. The damaged buildings are like giant X-ray machines giving off radiation. If you don’t stand close to them, within a kilometer for sure, you have nothing to worry about at all. It is a serious danger to the staff, however, who have to go right up to the emitting buildings to do their jobs. They are taking great risks and their immediate and long-term health are at risk. They are true heroes, but they are the only ones who will get the very large doses that might cause the symptoms of ‘‘radiation sickness’’ that are being described in the media. These are acute symptoms, immediately life-threatening. The public should not worry about this one.”
On dealing with exposure to radioactive dust:
“The second concern is real for the public. It is radioactive contamination on the clothing and skin. It is unlikely that many people are going to have this problem, but some in the immediate vicinity will. It consists of getting radioactive dust on the clothing, skin and hair. The first thing is to avoid this in the first place. That is why people are told to stay indoors. If the dust does not fall on you, you have little to worry about.
‘‘What if you are contaminated? The solution is to remove clothing carefully and exchange it for clean clothes or simply wash it. The dust is like any other dust and can be removed in this way. Care should be taken to wash exposed skin and hair and a contaminated person should try to not inhale or eat contaminated things.
‘‘Once those things are washed and cleaned carefully they are no longer radioactive and can be used without concern. Contamination does not make things become radioactive. It is a dust on the surface and can be washed off. Wearing long sleeves and hats and keeping skin exposure as little as possible are good practices. If clean clothes are not available, then removing the outer layer would be a good precaution. If it is hard to wash contamination out of hair, then it can be cut off. It is a small price to pay for peace of mind. Better yet, wear a hat or scarf!’’
On avoiding breathing in and ingesting radiation:
‘‘And lastly, there is the concern about getting radioactive material inside the body. The dust mentioned before should not be breathed. Wear a face mask, or cover the face with a cloth to prevent breathing particles. Stay indoors. Do not eat food that has been left where dust can settle on it. Wash your face around the face mask before removing it and keep the mask clean. This will be very effective against dust which is probably in a cloud that will pass over quickly. Some dust may settle out, and rain may wash it out more -- another reason to stay indoors and try to stick to clean water.’’
On the importance of iodide tablets:
‘‘This will not protect against the one remaining internal hazard -- iodine in the cloud. Radioactive iodine will be a real problem for several weeks after this accident. The best prevention for it is to take potassium iodide tablets as directed by emergency personnel. Their action is simple. The thyroid gland in the body uses iodine for your health. If the thyroid gland is full of iodine it will not take in any more. The emergency personnel give you tablets to take that fill your thyroid with normal healthy iodine and keep the radioactive kind out. But it still pays to stay indoors and avoid contact with a cloud of debris passing over or rain.’’
On managing a crisis:
‘‘This is a serious accident. If you are in the path of the radiation you are going to get some exposure. It is unlikely to seriously affect your life unless you panic and do the wrong things. Don’t be afraid. Don’t let people try to scare you. Stay away from the reactor. Stay indoors when advised. Wash your hands and face frequently and if you are contaminated manage your clothing and wash your skin. This thing is unpleasant but it is completely survivable and if you live to a ripe old age, it will probably not affect you.
Just be smart and informed.’’
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