Last March, a powerful earthquake shook the Fukushima province of Japan and sparked a tsunami that caused three of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant to shut down. Many followed the aftermath as these reactors experienced meltdowns and radiation was sent into the atmosphere, making it the second worst nuclear disaster after Chernobyl. In the months that followed, I wondered what happened to all that radiation: Is it was safe to visit the area? Is radiation making its way towards the U.S.?
Recently, I completed an assignment for another publication on Fukushima and got to learn more about the aftermath.
The meltdowns sent radioactive forms of iodine and cesium into the air and nearby water. Radioactive iodine is generally absorbed through food and has a half-life of a week. Half-life is the amount of time it takes for a material to decrease by half. The worry was that nearby grass was contaminated; meaning the milk produced by local cows contained the radioactive form of this element. From what I learned, authorities quickly stopped the production of milk in the province to ensure little exposure to iodine.
What's left now is the cancer causing radioactive cesium, which has a half-life of 30 years. Through air and water cesium will slowly spread to other countries and eventually globally, exposing many. But it will get so diluted in the process, that the scientists I spoke to believe that on an individual level, the chances of having cesium induced illnesses will be low.
What could be done as far as cleanup? Well, in addition to removing contaminated topsoil in the province and making sure similar disasters don't happen, not much. But authorities do need to closely monitor food and water supply to make sure what we ingest isn't contaminated.