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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Radioactivity and Health

Posted by Barbara Gottlieb and John Rachow, MD PhD on October 31, 2012

This month, the Environmental Health Policy Institute considers a toxic substance not regularly addressed by the toxics community:  nuclear radiation.  Specifically, we look at the implications for human health of an accident at a nuclear power reactor.  We use as our frame of reference the 2011 nuclear reactor accident in Fukushima, Japan.

In March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred about 40 miles off the coast of Japan.  The quake triggered a massive tsunami, estimated at between 33 - 49 feet tall.  That wall of water devastated the northeast coast of Japan.  More than 15,000 people were killed outright, with thousands more injured or missing.  Damage to the built environment along the coast and for miles inland was unprecedented.

Situated immediately on the coast, squarely in the tsunami’s path, was the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.  Within a few hours the station, with six nuclear reactors, faced a power blackout.  Off-site power was lost immediately with the earthquake; emergency electricity from diesel-powered generators kicked in, but could not be sustained because of flooding from the tsunami that struck 40 minutes later; on-site emergency battery power was exhausted in a few hours. With station blackout, cooling water for the individual reactors and spent fuel pools was lost.  The reactor fuel overheated, generating hydrogen that eventually led to hydrogen explosions inside three of the reactor buildings.  The buildings' internal infrastructure and their exteriors were severely damaged, and uncontrolled radiation release ensued.

How does nuclear radiation harm the human body?  What would be the health consequences of a major nuclear accident here in the United States?  Would we be able to evacuate the populations in harm’s way?  And how do we assess the related question of the ever-growing stockpiles of nuclear reactors’ radioactive waste?  We invite you to explore these challenging questions with us in this month’s Environmental Health Policy Institute.


Radiation's Risk to Public Health
Ira Helfand, MD

Evacuation in Case of Nuclear Reactor Accident: Feasible?
Andrew S. Kanter, MD MPH

An Overview of Radiation and Health
Jeffrey J. Patterson, DO

The Growing Problem of Spent Nuclear Fuel
John W. Rachow, MD PhD

Costs and Consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi Disaster
Steven Starr

The views expressed in these essays are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Physicians for Social Responsibility.


Nicole Scott said ..

Can you please update your contributions in light of the fact that the Fukushima Daichi plants 1,2, and 3 are in full meltdown, in fission, and leaking at least 300 tons of polluted water into the Pacific Ocean on a daily basis ever since? Doesn't that change the gravity of this situation and potentially threaten the health and lives of far more than just those living in Japan?

November 23, 2013

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