Health: late effects from radioactive radiation

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Health: fear of late effects from radioactive radiation

For the first time, the Japanese government admits that the damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima poses a significant health hazard. The nuclear disaster, the biggest accident to be expected of a nuclear reactor, has long been a bitter reality. The international INES value, the value that measures the damage caused by a reactor accident, has meanwhile been increased from four to six. The country is now on the threshold of a so-called superau, where the further consequences are no longer manageable. What could that mean for people's health in Japan?

Reactors are increasingly out of control According to current reports, the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant is getting out of control. After four explosions and several fires, four of the six reactors in Fukushima are severely damaged. According to the Japanese nuclear regulatory authority, the inner protective shell of a reactor is probably damaged for the first time. Apparently there are two holes with a size of eight square meters on the shell of the reactor. According to government reports, the cooling systems in two other reactors are also said to have failed. The country is facing an unprecedented nuclear catastrophe.

Reactors should be cooled from the outside Almost helpless now the attempts currently being made to cool the damaged reactors from the outside. At first, attempts were made this morning to take over the cooling with the help of helicopters. However, since the temporarily high radiation levels were dangerous to health for the crews, the action was stopped after a short time. Now police water cannons are supposed to provide external cooling. It has not yet been determined whether this attempt will succeed.

Gau or superau?
Almost exactly 25 years after Chernobyl, another super meltdown is feared. The worst-case scenario occurs when there are no more ways to control the situation. For a short time it already looked like the last 50 remaining workers and engineers were pulled out of the crisis area. After a short time, the voluntarily remaining employees are back in the control center of the facility. The protection zone was expanded from 10 to 20 and now to 30 kilometers. However, people - who are still close to the scene of the accident - have to be prepared for far-reaching damage to health. Because once radioactive substances get into the body, they can trigger serious cancer even after decades. The workers in the defective reactor are temporarily exposed to high levels of radiation. Nevertheless, they try everything to avert a super meltdown. In Japan, one speaks of “heroes” in this context because the employees are exposed to extreme health risks in order to protect the population from nuclear contamination.

High radiation doses already measured The international nuclear regulatory authority IAEA announced today that radiation doses of up to 400 millisieverts per hour have already been measured near the Fukushima nuclear power plant. A dose of 100 millisievert is enough to trigger serious cancers as a long-term consequence. In addition, the radioactive cesium-137 and iodine-131 were measured in the surrounding air of the reactors. These substances are no less dangerous and can be distributed in the air over large parts of the country. If the winds are unfavorable, the capital Tokyo can also be affected by radioactive precipitation, for example. At the moment, however, it looks as if the radiation particles are being driven to the sea.

Limited means of protecting against radioactivity There are few ways for people in Japan to protect themselves against the nuclear hazard. The authorities therefore limit themselves to advising the population not to leave their homes, to switch off the air conditioning and to wear a face mask. However, since respiratory protection can hardly prevent volatile, radioactive substances, at least this protective measure is less effective. The Japanese government also distributes iodine tablets. These are intended to protect people from radioactive iodine 131. The effect is also limited here and only protects against a possible thyroid cancer disease as a late consequence. In addition, the medication must be taken in advance in order to virtually flood the body with iodine so that superfluous, contaminated iodine is excreted again. For the first time, practical information on how to protect yourself from the approaching radiation contamination is now being given on Japanese television. Because the radioactive types of radiation can have far-reaching health consequences for the population. However, people in Germany should not take iodine tablets as a preventive measure, as an overactive thyroid can be triggered. In addition, from a medical and scientific perspective, there are currently no indicators that could justify such an intake.

Is a far-reaching meltdown underway? It is still unclear whether a major meltdown has taken place. The nuclear power plant operator TEPCO speaks of a partial meltdown. In order to cool down the fuel rods that have become hot, sea water should now be used as cooling from the outside. A meltdown is so dangerous because in addition to cesium-137 and iodine-131, this process can also release uranium, plutonium and other fission products such as krypton or strontium. According to the Federal Ministry for Radiation Protection, however, hardly any or insufficient measurements were carried out in Japan to be able to provide specific information about a release of the substances. However, the measurements made indicate that the reactor core has obviously been damaged. Authorities, government statements and the operating company currently contradict each other in this aspect, so that it is difficult to provide clear information on this.

Great health risk due to cesium-137 and iodine-131 If cesium-137, iodine-131, uranium, plutonium and other fission products are actually released into the environment in high doses, this would be the greatest health risk for humans. Because animals and humans absorb these substances by inhaling the contaminated air into the organism. Especially when people are in the vicinity of the nuclear reactor, there is a very high risk of developing blood cancer or thyroid cancer. The consequences are usually not visible at first glance and can still occur decades after the radioactive particles have been absorbed. In addition, the radioactive substance cesium-137 has a high half-life of 30 years. This means that half of the radiation dose only decreases after 30 years. If contamination has occurred, there are no medical options to initiate successful therapy to alleviate the damage to the body. Cesium spreads mainly in muscle tissue and nerve cells. The processes between the cell interior and the cell environment are significantly damaged.

Radiation sickness threatens engineers in Fukushima Another danger is the radiation itself. If a person is contaminated with a radiation level of 400 to 500 millisiever within a few minutes or hours, the dreaded radiation sickness occurs. The patients then suffer from severe headaches, anemia and severe cell decay. Whether a patient survives such radiation exposure depends largely on the duration and intensity of the radiation. The longer and the higher the radiation dose, the lower the chances of survival.

Are people at risk in Europe? It remains to be seen how the situation in Japan will develop. However, one thing already seems certain: the area surrounding the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant will remain uninhabitable for years if not decades. In the opinion of numerous experts, a risk to the German and European population is currently ruled out, since, unlike in Chernobyl at the time, no strong fires have yet occurred. In addition, the distance of around 7,000 kilometers is too great to speak of an actual danger. The situation is different in the eastern part of Russia. Here, the Russian government has already put the army on alert to be able to initiate possible evacuations if a worst-case scenario actually occurs. (sb, gb)

Read on this topic:
What do meltdown or super meltdown mean?
Radioactive radiation: consequences for health
Nationwide campaigns for the nuclear phase-out planned
Doctors are calling for the shutdown of all nuclear power plants

Joujou /

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