By Frank Moher
I travelled to a local health food store on Monday and bought some kelp tablets. I was actually after potassium iodide, but they were already sold out.
I am not naturally a health food store habitué — as I write this, I’m finishing up a Teen Burger meal — but my visit fell under the better-safe-than-sorry proviso for dealing with massive disasters such as the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear disaster. I live on the western edge of North America, and the jet stream, she’s a-comin’ this way, Pa, she’s a-comin’.
Of course, my concerns are nothing as compared with those of the people of Japan. Nothing. And, of course, local Experts assure me that I have nothing to worry about: by the time those radiation particles reach me, they will be so widely dispersed as to be no more dangerous than pollen on a Spring day.
Thank you, Experts. I suppose I believe you.
However, I am not at all sure it’s a good thing for the BC government to discourage pharmacies from bringing in new quantities of potassium iodide. I understand that too much of the stuff isn’t good, especially if your thyroid’s already messed up, but this might be an instance where government would be best off letting us think we have some control over our well-being, and that of our family.
And besides, their assurances are distinctly equivocal. “I don’t think there is any rationale or reason for stockpiling potassium iodide,” says BC chief medical officer Dr. Perry Kendall, before adding the fine print: “at this point in time.”
Says “intercontinental pollutant transport expert” Ian McKendry: “The risk is relatively low, barring some kind of further disastrous situation occurring with these reactors.” All righty then: we’ll assume there’ll be no more disastrous situations beyond the four or five that have already occurred.
Meantime, Dr. Helen Caldicott is less sanguine. “The second reactor that’s just had an explosion,” she told flashpoints.net on Monday, “for some reason was fueled with MOX fuel, which is mixed oxide fuel, containing plutonium as well as uranium . . . . I don’t know if the containment vessel was breached or not, but if that plutonium gets out into the air, it will circulate from west to east around the globe, the northern hemisphere. Plutonium is so toxic that a million of a gram or less will induce cancer of the lung, or the liver, or the bone, or the blood, or the testicle. It does tend to have a predilection for testicles, and thus it will damage the genes and the sperm for all future generations.”
As of this morning, the situation at that reactor, Fukushima Daiichi #3, is unclear, though a spike in radiation levels has forced a temporary evacuation of emergency workers and “the operator fears that there has been damage to the suppression chamber.” That would be the “containment vessel” Caldicott referred to.
So forgive me, Experts, but I think I’ll hang onto my kelp tablets for now. Apparently, I would have to ingest a bottle a day before they’d do any good, and neither they nor potassium iodide will provide any protection at all against plutonium radiation.
Nevertheless, they might make me feel a little better.
Updated March 16, 2011, 9:24 pm
NPR reports that “although plutonium is a long-lived emitter of radiation, it is also quite heavy, so it is not likely to move very far downwind from its source.”
And the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (an anti-nuclear power group) notes that “radionuclides [such as plutonium] are generally present in much larger quantities in spent fuel pools than in the reactor itself” and that “no mixed oxide (MOX) spent fuel is in the Unit 3 spent fuel pool.”
A “spent fuel pool” is for rods that have been put out to pasture but nevertheless retain the capacity to heat up and melt down, thus emitting radiation. However, the Japanese plant only started using mixed oxide fuel last September. In other words, it hasn’t yet moved MOX rods to storage, where they would be more dangerous.
In other other words, all things considered, the threat to North America remains minimal. The threat to Japan has increased, although not as much as one might have feared.