Japan seeks to allay nuclear fears

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: People are also very much on edge over the efforts to contain the critical reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Officials say 50 workers are at the complex. All of them are wearing protective gear. Still, David Brenner, Director of Columbia University Center for Radiological Research says the workers are being exposed to radiation.

David Brenner: They are getting very high doses I'm almost certain. And unfortunately, there's significant chance that some of them are getting potentially lethal doses. And so these are very, very brave people who are putting their lives on the line. I think they know they're putting their lives on the line to try and sort out this situation.

Werman: Radiation is cumulative in the human body. How long can these workers stay in the plant and do this critical work?

Brenner: Well, that's a very good question and I suspect what they're doing is what was done at the Chernobyl incident in the old Soviet Union, which is they work for a few minutes then they rotate out and another person comes in and does something and rotates out. But there's certainly a limit to how much these heroic folks can actually do. We are hoping that soon enough they'll get the situation more under control.

Werman: So these technicians in the plant are presumably wearing full bodysuits and using air packs, but some forms of radiation can actually penetrate that gear. How does that happen?

Brenner: Yeah, that's certainly true. There are two ways in which radiation exposure can occur: one is that you inhale the radiation, and that these folks who've got the full bodysuits can prevent happening to a significant extent, but there's also simply a very high radiation level close to the core and that's from radiations that are outside the body and there's really not much to be done there, and that's where the exposure is coming from for those folks.

Werman: Right. Let's move away from the plant in Fukushima now. Take us to the people just on the other side of that 20 miles radius from the plant. What are the radiation dangers posed to those people there?

Brenner: Well, I think right at this moment in time, should the incident stop right now and there's no more radiation emissions, I think the risks to those folks are very small indeed. I think the risks are small to the folks even right at the border of the evacuation zone. And as you go further away from the evacuation zone the risks are gonna be even less. I think our concern is well, the situation hasn't ended yet and how much more radioactivity is going to be released from the reactor, and very much which was is the wind blowing. The wind is playing an absolutely crucial role here. If the wind is off shore it's blowing the radioactive materials from the plant into the sea and away from the population. If the wind is blowing in the other direction, well, it's the reverse. And by and large the wind actually has been blowing off shore, so it's been in our favor. It's occasionally switched directions, but this time of year the general trend for the winds is off shore, and that's a really big player in the story.

Werman: It's my understanding that a lot of scientific knowledge about radiation and its effects on humans is a result of studying the survivors of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since then how have scientists learned about the risks of radiation or is it pretty much still that body of evidence?

Brenner: The studies at Hiroshima and Nagasaki certainly have been crucial in our understanding of radiation risks. And that's in part because those events took place in 1945. So we've been able to followup the survivors for essentially a lifetime, and that's what you really need to do to understand radiation risks. There are other populations that have been studied. And the people exposed in Chernobyl have also been studied, unfortunately, by no means as intensively. So we know for example that thyroid cancer risks near the Chernobyl incidents were increased. We know that leukemia was increased, but the main body of cancers really unfortunately have not been well-studied in that population.

Werman: David Brenner directs the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University. Thanks very much for your time indeed.

Brenner: Thank you.