It’s possible that radioactive material released as a result of fires, partial meltdowns and explosions reported at Japanese reactors will be detected in Washington, but highly unlikely that levels could affect human health on this side of the Pacific – even if the situation gets worse, experts say.
“I don’t believe that there is any way we could get to the level where there would be a health concern to us,” said Dan Jaffe, environmental sciences professor at the Bothell campus of the University of Washington who has documented air pollution from Asia traveling to the United States.
Jaffe noted that by the time the release crossed the ocean it would be at least 10,000 times – and perhaps 100,000 times – more diluted than what would be experienced in Japan near the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.
Hamish Robertson, a UW physics professor, has added equipment to a detector he was using for another study at the Seattle campus so that it can detect products of nuclear fission, such as cesium-137 and iodine-131, which if found would almost certainly be from the failing Japanese nuclear reactors.
“I don’t see that there’s much cause for concern, but we’re going to monitor this anyway,” Robertson said. “I don’t expect to detect any, unless basically the worst happens.”
The monitoring equipment became operational Monday. Nothing’s been detected so far – though it would probably take 10 days or so before isotopes from the reactors would reach Seattle, he said.
Robertson said trace amounts of iodine-131 were detected at a University of Washington monitor after the Chernobyl nuclear crisis in Ukraine in 1986. He said it’s unlikely that the release of radiation from the Japanese nuclear plant could get worse than Chernobyl even though there are multiple reactors in trouble. That’s in large part, he said, because the reactors were successfully shut down before problems began.
Akira Tokuhiro, a University of Idaho mechanical and nuclear engineering professor, said it would take a series of highly unlikely events for the Japanese reactors to cause health problems on the other side of the Pacific and equated the chance to buying five lottery tickets and picking the winning numbers on all five.
But he added: “It’s really important to emphasize that the situation is ongoing, so we have to stay vigilant.”
The closest nuclear power plant to Spokane is the Columbia Generating Station, which is located about 10 miles north of Richland.
The plant, which became operational in 1984, accounts for 9.5 percent of the power generated in Washington, said Mike Paoli, spokesman for Energy Northwest, the agency that runs the facility.
Paoli said the plant was built five miles from the Columbia River at a site that would not flood even if Grand Coulee Dam were breached. He said the minimum specifications of the plant called for it to withstand an earthquake of 6.1 on the Richter scale but that plant officials believe it could withstand an earthquake “in excess of” 8.0.
The Columbia plant also has more back-up power capabilities for cooling than the troubled reactors in Japan, he said.
“There may be something to learn” from the problems facing the Japanese plant, Paoli said. “But it’s a little too soon to mirror-image and jump to conclusions.”