When I think of nuclear power plants, clean, safe, efficient energy isn't usually the first thing to come to mind. Firstly, I think of Chernobyl, where the world's most devastating nuclear power plant disaster happened in the Ukraine. Deadly explosions released radioactive plumes that swept over Europe and ravaged a whole city unusable.
Secondly, I think of the 1979 film, The China Syndrome (hey, I'm a Michael Douglas fan). The movie depicts a coverup at the fictitious Ventana nuclear power plant that nearly creates a catastrophic meltdown of the nuclear reactor due to a loss of coolant exposing the fuel rod assemblies.
And now, thanks to the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that left Japan in shambles, I will always think of the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Okuma. With fires and explosions threatening the nuclear reactors, fears that a meltdown could leak dangerous amounts of nuclear radiation were high and present in everyone—even in North America, where Americans are stocking up on potassium iodide tablets in fear of radiation reaching the U.S causing potential radiation sickness. But is there really anything to worry about?
Joe Cirincione told Fox News that "The worst case scenario is that the fuel rods fuse together, the temperatures get so hot that they melt together in a radioactive molten mass that bursts through the containment mechanisms and is exposed to the outside. So they spew radioactivity in the ground, into the air, into the water. Some of the radioactivity could carry in the atmosphere to the West Coast of the United States."
This is because the Fukushima plant contains a different, safer reactor than Chernobyl's graphite-moderated reactor and the Ventana's sodium-cooled reactor (based off the old experimental reactor in the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the Simi Valley). The Fukushima plant houses boiling water reactors instead, with neutron moderators—it uses boiling water to cool the reactor.
Right now, there's no need for panic, because radiation levels are currently falling at Fukushima, where workers are finally getting the plant under control. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't be prepared in case this situation worsens—or for when the next nuclear disaster happens. There's not much you can do to completely remove radiation from your person, but there are some things that can help lessen the risk of life-threatening radiation sickness.
Step 1 Prevention with Potassium Iodide
Most people are already attune to this step. As I stated before, Americans are stocking up on Potassium Iodide caplets as we speak (um... as you read), which acts as a blocking agent.
In humans, the thyroid gland is prone to absorbing radioactive iodine. But when Potassium Iodide (KI) is taken orally, it saturates the thyroid with non-radioactive iodine, reducing the amount of radiation the thyroid will take in. But this is not a foolproof plan for prevention—it does not stop other organs in your body from being exposed or contaminated with radiation.
So, if you have a good stock of Potassium Iodide tablets, then you're a step ahead of everyone else, though taking KI irresponsibly could have adverse health reactions. In some people, taking KI where there is no radiation can actually damage the thyroid gland. It's advised that you don't take any until elevated radiation levels hit your area.
But interestingly, a report commissioned by Congress in 2003 recommended that everyone under the age of 40, located near a nuclear power plant, should have these pills on hand. And this is despite recent efforts from the CDC and DHSC preventing Americans from obtaining Potassium Iodide; Pharmacists are refusing to sell and Amazon.com is currently sold out.
- Do not take these pills if you are allergic to iodide.
- Only take when directed by state or local health authorities during a radiation emergency.
Step 2 Decrease Exposure
It may seem obvious, but time is the most important step to thwarting deadly health consequences from radiation exposure. The longer a human is exposed to radiation, the larger the hazardous dose, the more harm it will cause.
So, get away from the potential radiation source as soon as you can.
Step 3 Remove Contaminants
When conducting relief efforts in Japan, U.S. helicopter crew members showed low levels of radioactivity. Even low levels could cause potential health risks in the long run. Cancers from radiation poisoning can take as long as 10 years to show up.
But after some quick reaction protocols, no further contamination was detected on the crew members. What did they do? Scrub.
When shortly exposed to radiation, it's possible that you only sustained external contamination, not internal. And the best way to make sure it stays that way is to:
- Take off all of your clothes (shirts, shoes, underwear... everything) and place them in secured plastic bags. Removing these items eliminates roughly 90% of external contamination.
- Shower with soap and water, scrubbing hard to remove any possible radiation from the body. This helps with the remaining 10% of external contamination, and lowers the risk of you breathing, ingesting or being infected by harmful radiation particles.
That's it. When it comes to being exposed to radiation, you should always, 1). get the hell out of there, and 2). decontaminate yourself.
Step 4 Increase Distance
Now that you've evacuated yourself from the infected area and cleaned up a bit, it's time for the third step—increasing your distance to the infected zone. If you double the distance between you and the danger zone, the possible exposure of radiation is reduced by a factor of 4 (inverse-square law).
With winds pushing radiation clouds around, it could become a game of cat and mouse, where you're constantly on the run as it chases you around.
Step 5 Shielding
The next logical step is to shield yourself from radiation, which will help lessen exposure. Shelters are the obvious choice, but even clothes can help reduce the amount of exposure. Things like paper and normal clothing can prevent alpha particles from penetration obstructions. Heavier clothing is necessary to prevent beta particles from penetrating. But gamma rays possess immense energy, and you would need lead shielding to stop them. So, a shelter with lead covering is best.
And of course... don't forget proper ventilation.
See Step 7 below for a guide on proper shelters.
Step 6 Treatment Medications
If you've been exposed to internal contamination of radioactive particles, you must take medication to try and flush it out.
- Blocking agents like Potassium Iodide are used to stop radioactive iodine from invading your thyroid gland (Step 1), but is also used after exposure to stop further exposure and flush toxic particles out through urine. Other blocking agents include Potassium Phosphate (dibasic) and Propylthiouracil.
- There's also something called Prussian Blue, an ion exchanger that binds to the radioactive particles of cesium and thalium, reducing the amount of radiation that cells may absorb, according to the Mayo Clinic. Then, the radioactive particles are excreted through feces. However, the CDC warns that people SHOULD NOT take Prussian Blue artist's dye in an attempt to treat themselves, because it's not made for the purpose of radiation treatment.
- Chelating agents are also use, like the chemical called Diethylenetriaminepentaacetic Acid, which binds to radioactive particles of plutonium, americium and curium. Then those radioactive particles pass out of the body in urine, reducing the amount of radiation absorbed. Other chelating agents include Ca-DTPA, Zn-DTPA and Dimercaprol.
For a full list of medication used to treat and manage internal contamination of radiation poisoning, check out "Managing Internal Contamination" from the Radiation Emergency Medical Management (REMM) website from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
Step 7 More Ways to Reduce the Risk of Contamination
If you can't get a hold of Potassium Iodide tablets (Step 1), there are other simple techniques to be aware of to prevent or reduce thyroid damage. The Nuclear War Survival Skills (NWSS) by Cresson Kearny gives the following tips for accidents or nuclear war.
- Do not drink or otherwise use fresh milk produced by cows that have consumed feed or water consequentially contaminated with fallout or other radioactive material resulting from a peacetime accident or from nuclear explosions in a war.
- As a general rule, do not eat fresh vegetables until advised it is safe to do so. If under wartime conditions no official advice is obtainable, avoid eating fresh leafy vegetables that were growing or exposed at the time of fallout deposition; thoroughly wash all vegetables and fruits.
- If a dangerously radioactive air mass is being blown toward your area and is relatively small (as from some possible nuclear power facility accidents), and if there is time, an ordered evacuation of your area may make it unnecessary even to take potassium iodide.
- For protection against inhaled radioactive iodine, the FDA Final Recommendations (which are mentioned in the preceding section) state that the following measures "should be considered": "..sheltering [merely staying indoors can significantly reduce inhaled doses], evacuation, respiratory protection, and/or the use of stable iodide."
You can download the NWSS for free here.