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Jesse Handel
Jesse Handel, Scientist
Category: General
Satisfied Customers: 309
Experience:  B.S. Degree Chem. & Bact. 10 yrs tax preparation.
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will the wind blow radiation from japan toward the u. s.

Customer Question

will the wind blow radiation from japan toward the u. s.? at what speed?
Submitted: 6 years ago.
Category: General
Expert:  Jesse Handel replied 6 years ago.
Hello and thank you for coming to Just Answer. We appreciate the opportunity to help you with your questions.

There are two different answers to your question: the theoretical answer and the practical answer. When the Chernobyl reactor disaster happened in Russia, higher radiation levels thought to be associated with the disaster were detected by the Department of Energy in the New York area within one week of the disaster. In terms of the prevailing winds, Japan is in the same wind corridor that brought radiation from Russia to the U.S., only Japan is farther away so radiation will be slower to reach the United States and relatively less radiation will reach the United States. That is the theoretical answer.

In practical terms, the amount of radiation that reached the United States from the world's worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl was only slightly above natural levels and well below any levels at which the Department of Energy would have taken any action to protect the public. The reactor in Japan was shut down as soon as the earthquake hit and the heat currently being monitored is the residual heat from the reactor as it cools both naturally and artificially. There is very little chance at this point for the situation to escalate out of control since the reactor is no longer "critical" and generating heat. Even if there was an excessive amount of heat that caused a radioactive steam leak, the steam would still be contained in the reactor containment building. Even at the worst case scenario, the reactor in Japan couldn't reach environmental contamination levels anywhere close to the amount of contaminants released by the Chernobyl accident and the worst nuclear accident of all time produced radiation increases in the United States that stayed well below the Department of Energy's extremely conservative action levels.

I hope this information both answers your questions and relieves any anxiety you may have about the situation in Japan causing problems in the U.S. due to radioactive contamination. There is really nothing for residents in the United States to worry about. Please let me know if you would like me provide more detail or if you would like clarification of any information. I will be happy to provide additional information if you would like.
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Expert:  Jesse Handel replied 6 years ago.
Hello again,

I need to correct a mistake in what I told you last night. I mentally crossed the weather patterns of the sides of the equator and didn't realize it. In the norther equatorial region, which is where both the United States and Japan are located, the prevailing winds are counter-clockwise. So any air-loaded material from Japan will move west across the Pacific to the western United States, rather than moving east across Europe and the Atlantic to the eastern United States. However, the rest of the information I gave you is correct. I worked at a facility in Idaho that identified and measured the airborne radioactivity from the Chernobyl disaster and it was identifiable, but well below any dangerous levels. America is only slightly (on the level of the size of the globe) closer to Japan than we were to the Russian area where Chernobyl was built.

With the explosion of the containment dome in Japan, the potential for airborne radioactivity is much higher, but it is still a very small risk to the United States. The radioactive contamination has to cross the entire Pacific ocean which is going to wash most of the radioactive particles out of the air. Where there may be a risk in the future is the amount of radioactive particles that end up in the Pacific ocean and, from there, into seafood. Radioactive materials in the Pacific will be such a small amount relative to the amount of seawater, that the water itself won't be hazardous. There may be a slight increase in the amount of radioactivity to be found in seafood. This won't reach the food markets until a month or months from now, and will be a slight impact. The U.S. government may recommend a decrease in the frequency of eating some types of seafood. This is a long-term potential problem and the government will be able to warn people in advance.

The situation in Japan is getting more serious, but the risk to the United States is still very low. The greatest risk is to the land and people of Japan itself.

Please don't press the "accept" button again. I don't mean to charge you for this update and the system shouldn't charge you twice, but to be safe, please don't accept. Thank you.
Customer: replied 6 years ago.
Thanks very much for this amendment. Of course I wondered about your first response and, you know the adage 'if the clock strikes three times at two o'clock it 's not only wrong in the instance but all past and future occurrences are cast in doubt. I was and am still, I think not nearly irrationally, concerned with (i) what I've been told are the effects of a total meltdown, (ii) previous lies and evasions by operators in the atomic power business (and, of course matny, many others areas of the market and culture) and, far worse, their governments' toadies and its toadies (iii) what I happen to see and know about the way the wind blows here in San Francisco and (iv) to repeat slghtly, the terribly, terribly common habit of lying and pandering which characterizes our economic and political affairs and all too much of our 'me first' "culture." Perhaps it's best to "mollify" the public. I don't think so though. I'am not accusing you and I certainly make far more mistakes than you do. I think you are admirable to have followed up and I wish you the best. Please consider taking to the streets..
Expert:  Jesse Handel replied 6 years ago.
Hello again,

I wanted to give you another update based on the increasing severity of the situation in Japan. The situation in Japan is very serious and could potentially reach Chernobyl-severity levels. The possible fire in the fuel storage area is potentially more serious than the reactor problems, depending on the age of the spent nuclear fuel. Spent nuclear fuel is fuel that has been removed from a reactor during refueling and it contains many radioactive isotopes that have formed during the time it was in the reactor. "Spent" just means that the level of uranium is too low to continue to use the material in a reactor, but the spent fuel actually is more radioactive when it is removed from the reactor than it was when it was fresh. Spent nuclear fuel is submerged in water which blocks radiation, cools the fuel, and removes radioactive decay products. The danger level of spent nuclear fuel depends on how long it has been out of the reactor and cooling. But, if the spent nuclear fuel is melting, then it can potentially offgas highly radioactive particles that can be carried by the winds. If the reactors continue to generate hydrogen gas and cause hydrogen gas explosions, which is what the explosions have been; they can also result in eventually destruction of the containment buildings.

I am limited in how well I can determine what is happening in Japan, because I'm trying to sieve the news reports for the actual facts as opposed to the news organizations' desire to make the news as dramatic as possible. Since I worked in the nuclear industry, but are no longer connected with them, I don't have any personal interest. Unfortunately, I also don't have any special information sources other than the news reports.

The head of the Department of Energy, Dr. Steven Chu, is telling the truth that regardless of how bad the situation in Japan becomes, the risk to Americans in America is very low. The risk of airborne contamination making it across the Pacific in any large concentrations is very slight. The airborne contamination in Japan, away from the reactors themselves, is still very low. The Japanese government is evacuating people and distributing iodine pills in order to be careful, but, so far, only workers and the sailors in the U.S. helicopter that flew through the smoke/dust plume from the explosion are the only people that have received any significant radioactive exposure. I haven't been able to determine how someone messed up enough for the helicopter to fly through the plume.

You can go ahead and stock up on potassium iodine pills if you want to be safe. You should be able to get them at drugstores or on the internet. Don't bother taking them until the government recommends it. Iodine pills work by overloading the thyroid with stable iodine, so that your thyroid won't use any radioactive iodine it receives from food or through the air. Most iodized salts have iodine, but you would have to eat a whole lot of salt to overload your thyroid with iodine. The salt would probably be more of a danger than the radioactive iodine. Radioactive iodine is one of the most dangerous of the airborne radioactive isotopes because the human body stores it in the thyroid, which gives it time to irradiate cells and potentially produce cancer.

The Department of Energy will be monitoring (and actually always does monitor) radiation levels in the air over America and they have no reason not to notify the public if they determine a problem. Most of the airborne particles will be washed out of the air into the Pacific ocean before it ever reaches the U.S. West Coast. The news media will report any large plumes of radioactive materials making its way over the Pacific Ocean, in plenty of time for you to prepare, if there is a danger. Also, any dangers to the U.S. Pacific Coast will reach Hawaii first, so that will also give you an early warning.

The worst case scenario that could happen in Japan is if enough of a fuel load melts and the structure of the plant allows the melted fuel to form into a mass. If the mass of melted fuel becomes large enough, it could possibly reach a critical mass and cause a nuclear explosion. Once the fuel explodes, it will scatter enough to stop any further reaction. It is what happened at Chernobyl, but there was no structure to contain the explosion. Chunks of the fuel rods were actually blown onto the roof of the reactor building. Soviet soldiers were used to run from a "safe" zone onto the roof of the reactor building, pick up a fuel chunk with their gloved hands, throw it back into the hole, and run back to the safe zone. Amazingly, the workers, first responders, and soldiers used in the cleanup mostly survived the immediate exposure. Undoubtedly many of those people suffered cancer later, but there are so many known cancer risks as well as risks that we don't even know of yet, that it is still very difficult to assess cancer cases directly related to the Chernobyl accident. But a criticality of the melted fuel is the very worst possible scenario and the explosion will still be mostly contained by the containment buildings that didn't exist at Chernobyl.

The biggest potential nuclear-related hazard to U.S. residents will still be the possibility of contaminated seafood from any radioactive particles washed into the Pacific Ocean and that will be a long term effect. It will take a week or more for the airborne radioactive materials (that haven't already exceeded their half-life and self-destructed) to reach the US. It will take weeks to months for fish to ingest enough radioactive particles in the ocean to be a problem and then it will take time for that seafood to reach the market, if the US government doesn't decide to stop the sale of untested seafood before it can reach the market at all.

This is just another free update. As time passes, I'm finding out more information about what is happening in Japan. The situation is still getting worse, but it's difficult to figure out how much worse things are getting based on the news. You are still safe in the US. The real question is how badly are the Japanese people going to suffer from the nuclear reactor problems on top of the earthquake and tsunami. Hopefully, there won't be any more lives lost to the reactors.

Again, this is just a free update as new information emerges. Don't press the Accept button because I don't want to charge you for it. Thanks.