In the aftermath of the 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan, one of the principal
concerns was the state of Japan’s nuclear reactors.
One in particular, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, located 150 miles
north of Tokyo in Onahoma city, suffered a massive power outage that disabled
its cooling system and caused pressure levels to rise.
Now, radiation is leaking out, even though Japanese officials don’t know how much
and emergency steps are being taken to protect the population.
First, Japan ordered the evacuation of thousands of residents who live in the
areas surrounding the affected nuclear power plants.
Authorities are also distributing stable potassium iodine doses to those people
who may have suffered exposure.
Stable iodine helps protect the body from radioactive exposure by blocking the
intake of radioactive material in the thyroid.
When the body is exposed to high levels of radioactive material, cells can
become permanently damaged, losing their ability to die, and then go on to
produce more damaged cells in a rapid, uncontrolled fashion. This is the
process that leads to cancer.
Children can be at a somewhat greater risk for cancer than adults after
radiation exposure because they are in the midst of growing and developing, and so
their cells are already reproducing rapidly.
For example, following the devastation caused by Chernobyl, the population saw a
dramatic spike in childhood thyroid cancers – more than 6,000 cases.
However, scientists later proved that if children in the area had taken stabile
iodine in the hours after being exposed to radiation, a sizeable percentage of
the cancers could have been prevented.
I must stress, however, that stable iodine is not the end-all when it comes to
radiation exposure. Radiation does not just affect the thyroid. In fact, the
regions that are most vulnerable to radiation are the cells lining the intestine
and stomach, and the cells in the bone marrow responsible for producing blood.
But, any potential reduction in the risk of cancers is a step in positive
direction at this point, and this is why it is crucial that Japan has
acknowledged the problem in a timely manner. Speed is key when it comes to
preventing and – in worse case scenarios, dealing with – radioactive exposure.
Now, Japan must keep a close eye on the rest of its population as well. If
current efforts to relieve pressure in Fukushima reactor fails and the reactor
core melts through its steel containment system, a radioactive plume could
disperse tens or hundreds of miles, affecting a huge number of citizens who
would need severe remediation. They also need to monitor radiation levels in
livestock and in the water supply to ensure that there are no hidden dangers of
contamination there as well.