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Comparing radiation leaks from major nuclear events

March 15, 2011

Now that the multiple nuclear reactors in Japan are in meltdown, possibly on the scale of Chernobyl in 1986, the key safety questions are “How will this radiation accident compare to other previously documented events, such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, and will the radiation cause cancer?”

Using reports from our US NCR and the United Nations BEIR VII report, we tabulated rough estimates of radiation exposure and compared them to the gold standard of data, the WW2 Atom-bomb survivor studies (BEIR). The long-term cohort studies of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the best medical data available to correlate cancer risks to exposure.

It is premature to estimate the radiation amounts being leaked from Japan, but given that there are at least four reactors melting down, it is safe to assume that the Japan disaster will be on par, if not worse, than Chernobyl. Chernobyl contaminated areas of Europe and thousands of miles away. Some areas were extremely high doses that were in cancer-causing range, but the average doses were not.

At this time, it is likely that radiation will reach Alaska and the continental U.S., but that the levels will be very low.

(click table to enlarge)

Thanks to Johns Hopkins Chief Medical Imaging Physicist Mahadevappa Mahesh, MS, PhD for contributing to this article

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