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Apr 11 2011   12:20AM GMT

Japan Nuclear Radiation Impacts (nothing to do with IT!)

Sasirekha R Profile: Sasirekha R

Japan Nuclear Radiation

With the explosion in the 3rd reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power station, the fears of spread of nuclear radiation in Japan have increased. After effects of nuclear radiation remain for a long time and the possibilities of it spreading to neighboring countries cannot be ruled out. So tried to find out more details on Nuclear Radiation and their impacts – and sharing it in the blog (though it has nothing to do with IT).

In 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear disaster, where in addition to almost immediate death of thirty workers, a few thousand deaths happened due to radiation (according to UN). Another sign of damage on health is that about 6,000 people aged under 18 at the time of Chernobyl had developed thyroid cancer – usually only affecting older people. These are mainly attributed to the point that the accident was discovered more than a day after the explosion. Another sad factor is that Research related to Nuclear Health Hazards are not happening in full force – and in some cases totally dropped due to lack of funds.

Before going to specifics, thought it would be a good idea to get some details on Nuclear Radiation. Nuclear radiation occurs from hundreds and thousands of unstable atoms. When electromagnetic waves are energized enough to detach electrons from the atoms or molecules, ionizing radiation takes place.   Radiation poisoning, also called as radiation sickness or creeping dose, happens when an ionizing radiation happens and the exposure to it damages organ tissues. The clinical name of radiation poisoning is Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS). Acute radiation syndrome is divided into three: hematopoietic, gastrointestinal and neurological/vascular. Treatment of acute radiation syndrome is generally supportive with blood transfusions and antibiotics.

Exposure to all levels of nuclear radiation is not fatal and this is measured by rems or mSv (where 1 Sv = 100 rems). The following table gives the crux of the details on radiation effects available at http://scienceray.com/biology/human-biology/harmful-effects-of-nuclear-radiation/.


Radiation Level Symptom Impact
below 1Sv Typically it is unnoticeable Very negligible
1 to 2 Sv Mild symptoms start to occur within the first 3 to 6 hours of exposure to nuclear radiation and may last for a day. After a few days the symptoms start to reappear as the blood cells die, but do not get replaced; this symptom lasts up to 4 weeks. The intestinal tract lining that gets damaged resulting in nausea, diarrhea and blood vomiting.In some cases, sperm forming tissues are damaged.As blood cells die, this may result in loss of appetite and fatigue.
2 to 4 Sv Symptoms – like nausea – start to appear within the first hour of exposure lasting couple of days.Severe symptoms – like hair loss, fatigue, diarrhea, kidney problems, hemorrhage, etc. -start to reappear after a week or so. The intestinal tracts or the hematopoietic tissues get damaged.Decrease in white blood cells that makes one vulnerable to infections; when infected it is tough to overcome it.There is also a possibility of mortality.
4 to 6 Sv Symptoms start to appear within the first half-an-hour of exposure and may last up to 2 days.The symptoms reappear after a brief period of 7 to 14 days. It is the blood tissues that get affected in this range.Infections and hemorrhage are the major reasons for mortality and this may occur between 2 and 12 weeks from exposure.
6 to 10 Sv The symptoms start to appear within the first 15 minutes of being exposed and last up to 2 days.The symptoms reappear after a brief period of 5 to 10 days. The bone marrow and the gastrointestinal tissues get damaged.Recovering back to normal after being exposed to this level of radiation is very minimal and complete recovery is not guaranteed.The mortality rate is too high due to reasons like infection and internal bleeding. 
greater than 10Sv Very severe and a person may collapse within few hours of exposure. Very high mortality due to  causes including intestinal tract damage, gastrointestinal problems, severe diarrhea, low blood pressure, etc. 

In addition to the direct health impacts, radiation exposure can also increase the probability of developing some other diseases – like cancer – though these are not included in the term radiation sickness. It is feared that Nuclear Radiation might also take its toll of vegetation and wildlife – like a travelling death.

Nuclear Radiation ill-effects can be reduced by:

  • Reducing the amount of time people are exposed to nuclear radiation.
  • Increasing the distance from the radiation sources and staying away from them.
  • Administering Potassium Iodide immediately after exposure reduces the risk of thyroid problems.

Health impact in Japan is kept low – as it is detected early and acted upon

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said the public health risk from Japan’s atomic plants remained “quite low.”

Lennart Carlsson, director of Nuclear Power Plant Safety in Sweden said “The wind direction is right for people in Japan. It’s blowing out to the Pacific, I don’t think this will be any problem to other countries.”

Malcolm Crick, Secretary of the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation said. “The radiation levels were detectible but in terms of human health it was nothing.”

The key reasons for the Health Impact being low are:

  • The disaster is known immediately and actions taken upon on an emergency basis
  • As a precaution, around 140,000 people have been evacuated from the area around Fukushima. This is a good move wherein the health risks are significantly reduced as according to experts, most damaging nuclear effects, such as radio iodines, dissipate within hours or days.
  • Efforts taken to contain the meltdown of the reactors.
  • The wind blowing out to the Pacific.

Other Impacts do exist

For nearly four weeks, Japanese emergency crews have been spraying water on the damaged Fukushima  nuclear reactors, a desperate attempt to avert the calamity of a full meltdown.

It is estimated that already about 15 million gallons of highly radioactive water has accumulated. The immediate problem is how to store all that water until the reactors and the spent fuel pools are brought under control. It seems that Tepco has released a couple of million gallons of the least contaminated water into the ocean this week, with the expectation that its radioactive elements would be diluted in the ocean’s mass. If repeated, such moves would be vigorously opposed, especially by Fishermen whose livelihood would be affected. Also international law forbids from dumping contaminated water into the ocean if there are viable technical solutions available down the road.

Ultimately, the high-level radioactive substances in the water will have to be safely stored, processed and solidified. Several methods – evaporation, solidification, vitrification – are discussed. Experts seem to be strongly disagreeing on the safest mode of disposal of the highly radioactive water.

Victor Gilinsky, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and longtime advisor on nuclear waste, says that the problems facing Japan are greater than decommissioning eight reactors at Hanford, the most highly contaminated nuclear weapons site in the U.S. as there are no meltdown and possibility of workers contamination in Hanford.

Exposing the material to open air could allow radioactive iodine and other volatile substances to blow off the site, adding to the remote contamination that is already spreading dozens of miles from the plant.

“If the contaminated water has relatively high tritium or tritiated water concentration, then treatment could be more complicated,” said Joonhong Ahn, a nuclear waste expert at UC Berkeley.

In any case, the process of cleaning up the water have to be handled on a specially designed industrial complex could take hundreds or even thousands of workers to work for many years, even decades, to complete. The cost could run into the tens of billions of dollars. The high levels of ground contamination at the site are raising concerns about the viability of people working at the site in coming decades.

Current Medical Trends

It seems that the U.S. government has allowed more than $500 million to invest in new therapies as part of two laws passed in 2004 and 2006, the Project BioShield Act and the Pandemic and All-Hazard Preparedness Act, Spoonful of Medicine reports.

Some of the encouraging medical trends related to Nuclear Radiation are:

  • Cleveland BioLabs is working to develop and commercialize innovative drugs to treat cancer and protect healthy tissues from radiation, chemotherapy or ischemic conditions. Japan’s nuclear crisis has put Cleveland BioLabs lead drug, known as CBLB502, proven to be safe in over 150 human beings and extremely efficacious as a radiation antidote in nearly 1,000 primates in testing, in the spotlight. Although the company’s radiation treatment is still in development, it is expected to be approved in the U.S. in late 2012 or early 2013.
  • Onconova Therapeutics is developing new drugs for treating cancer and radiation injury. The Company’s lead radiation protection agent – safety tested in more than 50 people – reduces the damaging effects of radiation exposure by enhancing cell survival and DNA repair pathways.
  • Osiris Therapeutics, the leader in stem cell therapeutics, is using bone marrow to create a stem-cell-based treatment that would help repair organ damage incurred as a result of radiation exposure.
  • Cellerant Therapeutics is developing a novel, cell-based medicine (Myeloid Progenitors / CLT-008) as a treatment for chemotherapy- and radiation-induced neutropenia as well as for Acute Radiation Syndrome
  • Aeolus Pharmaceuticals offers catalytic antioxidant compounds as a medical countermeasure against biological, chemical, and radiological weapons. It is working on AEOL 10150 that acts against the effects of acute radiation syndrome in the lungs and gastro-intestinal tract. and as a countermeasure for exposure to chemical vesicants, including chlorine gas and sulfur mustard gas

Silver Lining

Some researchers are optimistic that the Japan Nuclear reactor breakdown will prompt governments to raise the funds needed to carry out Research on Radiation Effects and other related studies.

Let us hope that everyone involved would see the value of the age-old adage “Prevention is better than Cure” and work towards making Nuclear Energy safer and take the best step forward in ensuring prevention of such disasters.

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