MU professors agree: Radiation from Japan will not harm US

Friday, March 18, 2011 | 9:31 p.m. CDT; updated 12:10 a.m. CDT, Saturday, March 19, 2011

COLUMBIA — Experts, officials and MU professors concur that the nuclear problems in Japan will have no effect on the U.S., and the threat of a nuclear catastrophe is unlikely.

According to a March 18 Reuters article, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Japan discovered no health threats as of Friday evening. While fallout from the plant has reached southern California, the numbers are "about a billion times beneath levels that would be health threatening," a diplomat said in a March 18 Associated Press article.

"I’m sure there will be some instruments in the U.S. that will pick up something," said William Miller, an MU professor of nuclear engineering. "That doesn’t imply that there is some sort of health risk."

According to a March 17 New York Times article, the precarious situation has left fuel rods in two overheated reactors exposed to the air. Water pumps that cool the overheating rods are not receiving power because of the tsunami and 9.0-magnitude earthquake that rattled the country, decreasing the water levels in the storage pools, the article stated.

Workers are monitoring the situation and utilizing different methods to prevent overheating, according to the article.

While experts are not labeling the disaster a serious threat, the situation has people around the world concerned about how a potential meltdown could affect them. Even in Tokyo, the chances of a full nuclear meltdown in a worst-case scenario are unlikely, said Sudarshan Loyalka, an MU nuclear engineering professor.

"Not only the U.S., but Japan is not in danger," Loyalka said. "They have evacuated people, taken safety precautions, and it was in their plans because they realized this could happen."

While the situation is still serious, it won't reach the proportions of the Chernobyl incident, labeled as the worst nuclear disaster in history, according to a March 18 CBS News article. Chernobyl occurred in the old Soviet Union in April 1986 and leaked radioactive iodine into the air, causing health problems for those exposed to the radiation, according to a March 16 New York Times blog.

"(Japan) won't be another Chernobyl because they have containment buildings over their reactors, which they did not have at Chernobyl," Miller said.

Miller said Japan's reactors, like the U.S.'s, safely shut down when there is a major problem.

"Chernobyl tried to shut itself down after it blew itself apart," he said. "It's a very different situation with (Japan's) reactors."

Loyalka said current practices are helping prevent such crises in the U.S. Because of the disaster, officials are making plans to re-examine plants across the country.

"The U.S. should definitely revisit plants of this type and other types to see if there are any things we can improve upon," Loyalka said. "That's why the inspections and reviews were created. The industry has already been doing this for some time."

Missouri residents have little to fear about seismic activity affecting Callaway County's nuclear plant, Loyalka added.

"We could have earthquakes here, sure," he said, "but the reactor has been designed to withstand earthquakes that have happened historically in this area."

Miller also said the plant in Callaway County is designed to handle the seismic activity from the New Madrid Fault that runs through southeast Missouri. At this time, there is nothing for Americans to worry about from the Japanese crisis, he said.

"I hope that the public understands that the risk in the United States is absolute zero," he said. "There is going to be some impact on people in the immediate vicinity of the Japanese plant, but with the shelter and the evacuation, the long-term health effects are going to be small."

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Ellis Smith March 19, 2011 | 7:30 a.m.

I believe the faculty belonging to the only undergraduate Nuclear Engineering program in UM System would fully agree with the assessment given. (That's one reason for that campus' "itty bitty" nuclear reactor: you don't need a powerful nuclear reactor to teach students reactor operating principles.)

Perhaps the Germans, especially their governing political party, have the correct stance regarding nuclear electric power generation: they are treating it as a "bridge" in planning their future energy needs. Long term they intend to phase out most or all nuclear power generation in favor of other options, but they understand they must not create power shortages in the process of "evolving."

Japan has invested heavily in nuclear power generation in part because Japan is poor in many natural resources*, including fuels. Japan, like coastal areas from Oregon through British Columbia, has many cloudy to partially cloudy days, making solar power generation difficult. As our friend "DK" has noted, you can't stick solar and wind generators just anywhere and expect them to be efficient.

*-This was an economic motivator for Japan's military expansion 1933-1945. Don't they teach that to students these days?

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