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Fukushima threat: 1 part real, 10 parts psychological

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on March 21, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
March 21, 2011 5:11 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

Maybe radioactivity needs a better PR firm. The radioactive particles leaking from Japan’s stricken nuclear plants are dangerous, but not remotely as dangerous as many people think they are.

Terror of nuclear fallout is rampant in Japan – which is understandable, given that it’s the only country to suffer a nuclear attack. Americans have less reason for panicking over the radioactive releases from the Fukushima reactors.

Every competent scientific authority in the United States has been assuring the public that those releases pose absolutely no threat to the health of anyone this side of the Pacific Ocean.

People up and down the West Coast have still cleaned out retailers’ supplies of potassium iodide pills, desperately trying to protect themselves against a nonexistent threat – thyroid cancer from Japanese radiation.

The pills themselves are potentially harmful to a few people, which makes them a bigger danger in this country than the Fukushima reactors.

The media coverage of the Japanese catastrophe is the most spectacular case of misplaced concern. The monster earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan a week ago Friday smashed a huge swath of its northeastern coast; killed more than 18,000 people, according to latest estimates; crippled electrical power; and left countless people hungry, homeless and huddling in the cold.

You’d think all that was a mere sideshow, given the obsessive focus on Fukushima.

Some perspective: The 1986 Chernobyl meltdown was a vastly more terrible nuclear catastrophe. Unlike the Fukushima reactors, the Ukrainian plant had no containment structure. Its graphite core caught fire and burned for days, spewing immense quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere and contaminating hundreds of square miles.

But to this day, it’s hard to identify more than a hundred deaths caused by Chernobyl. Many of those deaths resulted from the secretiveness and sheer incompetence of Soviet officials – who didn’t, for example, warn parents not to give contaminated milk to their children. Thyroid cancer is fairly easy to treat, fortunately; although thousands contracted it, only a handful are known to have died from it.

The radioactivity released from the Fukushima plants will be minuscule compared to Chernobyl. Any illnesses that result may be largely restricted to the plant workers who’ve heroically exposed themselves to radiation while battling to keep the cores cool.

So far, Japan has suffered greater psychological than physical damage from the stricken reactors. Foreigners have fled the country, and some may be getting as nervous about its products as they are about its scary winds.

The world ought to be focusing on the survivors of the earthquake and tsunami. By comparison, Fukushima itself is the sideshow.

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