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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

U.S. no-go zone 'overreaction'

Radiation risk nothing like Chernobyl, expert says


Staff writer

The U.S. government may have overreacted in setting an 80-km radius no-go zone for U.S. citizens near the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, an expert on radiation and cancer immunology said Tuesday in Tokyo.

U.S. hematologist Robert Gale, who treated Chernobyl exposure victims in 1986, said the current exclusion zone by the Japanese government that covers a 20-km radius around the plant is already "conservative."

"There is no solid reason for the U.S. government to suggest a wider evacuation," considering the current level of microsieverts detected in the region, he said.

Gale was one of the few doctors from the West who took part in the rescue mission at the 1986 Chernobyl incident, where he flew to Moscow and treated firefighters who were exposed to high levels of radiation.

He has taken part in medical rescue efforts after the 1999 nuclear chain reaction accident in Tokaimura, Ibaraki Prefecture, and Brazil's Goiania nuclear incident in 1987.

"Generally speaking, the public, even the educated people, have (little) knowledge of radiation risk, and do not trust authorities and information — even if it is correct," Gale said of reactions to nuclear accidents.

Tens of thousands tried to flee Kiev, a city about 100 km south of Chernobyl, when the nuclear meltdown occurred, but that turned out to be unnecessary, he said.

While troubles at Fukushima have raised comparisons with the world's worst nuclear disaster 25 years ago, Gale said the amount of radiation leaked, as reported by the government, can't be compared with that of Chernobyl.

The Chernobyl plant used a graphite moderator that ended up burning along with the fuel rods after the initial malfunction. The power plant in Fukushima has a different structure and employs light-water reactors.

The Fukushima radiation containment effort so far "isn't perfect but effective," Gale said, adding that Japan is much more organized and safety conscious than the Soviet Union was in 1986.

Gale, who treated the 204 firefighters and workers who were flown to Moscow, said 29 died due to high exposure to radiation. But they were working in the contaminated area without measuring the radioactivity they were being exposed to. Those in Fukushima are being monitored closely and working under the maximum allowable radiation dose of 250 millisieverts in total.

Even if the workers were to reach that level, it is unlikely to cause serious health problems right away, Gale explained.

But he also added that Fukushima will require close monitoring down the road.

While some say that it is too early to tell the long-term effects of radioactive leak in Chernobyl, Gale said that approximately 6,000 people got thyroid cancer following the Chernobyl accident. Patients were almost exclusively young, below the age of 16 at the time, and were likely affected by breathing in radioactive iodine and eating contaminated food, particularly milk.

Whether the area around the Fukushima nuclear power plants will become inhabitable again remains to be seen, Gale said. It could take decades if cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, is found to have contaminated the soil, he said.


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