Increasing concern about Japan’s unfolding nuclear disaster has reached the Eastern Sierra.
However, concerns about potential impacts from a nuclear meltdown 5,000 miles away are, at least for the time being, unwarranted.
While the situation in Japan is constantly changing, Inyo-Mono Public Health Officer Dr. Rick Johnson, said that there is still no threat to those living in Inyo or Mono counties. Johnson is offering advice on what local citizens can do as well as putting the situation into perspective.
Johnson said that he does not believe the Eastern Sierra will be affected by fallout or tsunamis, and that the tragedy in Japan should be considered a “lesson learned” and that locals should think harder about earthquake preparedness.
Johnson explained that as of Monday, there have been two explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. A third reactor is reportedly at risk of partial meltdown, with evidence that the metal casings of some fuel rods have been damaged. The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday there was no direct way to measure the extent of the damage.
Very limited amounts of radiation have been detected in the atmosphere from the two explosions and the continued deliberate release of steam to reduce pressure inside the reactor.
Johnson said that some radiation has been leaked in the immediate vicinity of the nuclear plants, but no radiation has reached the 35,000-foot elevation mark that would take the fallout into the jet stream. He added that there are radiation detection systems throughout the Western United States coastline.
Attempts to cool the reactors with sea water continue. This is essential to prevent further explosions and meltdown due to overheating. Johnson said the Japanese authorities’ use of sea water to cool the plants is a desperate move as the plants are considered useless after the salt water is used.
According to Johnson, excess radiation in the atmosphere has been detected as far away as 100 miles from the plant, comparable to one month of background radiation for each hour of exposure. The levels near the plant on Sunday were equivalent to one chest x-ray per hour.
“Humans are all constantly exposed to background radiation,” Johnson said. “In fact, those of us who fly, and all of us who choose to live at high altitude, have made the choice to expose ourselves to higher background levels of radiation from the ground, soil and sun.”
Johnson said “China Syndrome” or a Chernobyl-type event is virtually impossible. The Chernobyl event in 1986 was caused by horrendous design flaws in the nuclear plant, compounded by a cascading series of human errors. The plant was running at many times its normal capacity at the time of the disaster, when an explosion spewed radioactive material over a large area, immediately killing 32 plant workers and firefighters, and eventually killing about 4,000 from thyroid cancer. By contrast, in Japan, the reactors were shut down by the earthquake, averting an even worse catastrophe.
“This event (in Japan) is more comparable to Three Mile Island in 1979, where even after 32 years, there is still no evidence of increased cancer or genetic defects,” Johnson said.
At the federal level, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others monitor radioactive releases and manage a Federal Radiological Monitoring and Assessment Center.
“All the available information indicates weather conditions have taken the small amounts of radiation from the Fukushima reactors out to sea and away from the population,” Johnson said. “Given the thousands of miles between our countries, the U.S. West Coast is not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity.”
At the state level, a State Dose Assessment Center is managed by the California Emergency Management Agency and the California Department of Public Health Nuclear Emergency Response Program. Both employ health physicists with years of experience in the nuclear world going back to the 1940s.
And, there are some misconceptions and myths floating around that, while fodder for talking heads, are for the most part nothing but rumors.
Johnson pointed to a couple myths in particular:
• “We should all have ‘KI.’” KI stands for potassium iodide pills, and are distributed to individuals who reside within a 10-mile radius of nuclear power plants. This includes the two active plants in California, one in Orange County, and one in San Luis Obispo County.
“A scenario in which Eastern Sierra residents would need KI is beyond my wildest imagination,” Johnson said.
The U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin told NBC Bay Area reporter Damian Trujillo on Tuesday that people wanting to buy or stock-up on KI would not be an overreaction. She said it was right to be prepared.
Johnson said that he questions the interpretation of the General’s remarks. He said KI is in short supply nationwide and not available in any local pharmacy, and there will be no need for residents in the Eastern Sierra to take them for the Japanese disaster. He said KI can also have serious side-effects with other medications some patients may not be aware of.
• “We need to stay inside.” This is called “sheltering-in-place,” and would be the recommendation if there was radioactive fallout, Johnson said. “Some folks may remember fallout and bomb shelters from the 1950s. It is not anticipated that any recommendations to change people’s normal daily activities will be forthcoming.”
• “A ‘meltdown’ would be catastrophic, and put us at risk.”
Johnson said this actually is partially true. “A ‘meltdown’ would be catastrophic for Japan, but would not affect us,” he said. A meltdown – unlikely as it is – means that the temperature would rise such that the reactor core would melt and fall into the ground, and be contained there. The risk to mainland U.S. would not increase, he said.
• “Explosions have occurred, putting us at risk from fallout.” Yes, Johnson said, explosions have occurred, but radioactive material has not been released. These have been explosions outside of the reactor core, within the containment buildings. “As long as cooling is successful, and the reactor itself does not explode from heat and gas buildup, there should not be a massive release of radioactive material into the atmosphere,” he said. “Even if there was, the distance from the blast would serve to protect those in the Owens Valley.” Chernobyl fallout reached into Russia, and as far away as France, but not nearly as far as the Sierra Nevada are from Japan.
Anecdotal stories from local residents with ties to Japan add validity to some reports coming from the region. Ted White, ranger at Manzanar Historic Site and former resident of Japan for 10 years, said Wednesday that communication with Japan is very difficult. He said his friends and family in Japan have reported cellular phone towers are down and that the entire national power grid is damaged, causing rolling black-outs in all cities and towns.
White also explained that the weather this time of year in Japan can be unpredictable, from warm days to snow and wind. He said he is hearing that the citizens of Japan are appealing to each other to conserve energy and to help those most hit in the northern part of the country where infrastructure damage is making even transportation to these remote places difficult.
“So, what should we be doing?” As always, stay informed, Johnson said. Johnson said the British Broadcasting Company has the best and most up-to-date source of news available. For more information, go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12732015 .
The California Department of Public Health has established a public information response line at its Joint Emergency Operations Center, at (916) 341-3947.
The CDPH is also posting information as it becomes available at www.cdph.ca.gov  and www.bepreparedcalifornia.ca.gov .
Citizens should remain informed and appropriately concerned. Johnson said that most people, himself included, are dumbfounded by the pictures of the tsunami and carnage, but there is still action folks in the Eastern Sierra can take. (See article on page A-5 for where to donate.)
Johnson said this is the time to review personal earthquake preparedness.