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UK gov's top boffin says idea that Japan is concealing danger is 'completely paranoid'

The longer-lived isotope caesium-137 has also been detected in foodstuffs from the region, although again in very small amounts. It's not yet clear what the effects from this could be: after Chernobyl, where huge amounts of caesium were released, affected farmland had to be abandoned for varying periods but this seems highly unlikely in this case.

Tapwater in northeastern Japan remains entirely safe: though today's instruments can detect extremely tiny amounts of radioisotopes, in most cases none at all could be found. A few detections of iodine-131 were made, but well within normal safe limits - such water could be drunk for a lifetime without ill effects.

Chief cabinet secretary Yukiyo Edano said that the Japanese government would continue to monitor food and water across the country and that if any bans or limits on consumption were required they would be put in place: based on current indications no action was required.

Nowhere outside the powerplant boundaries has a radiation level of any concern to health been measured. On Friday the UK government's chief scientific advisor John Beddington described the Japanese evacuation measures as "sensible and proportionate" and said that even in a nightmare worst case with an explosion hurling material from a fully-melted core high into the air the situation in Tokyo would still be "absolutely no issue.  The problems are [in that situation] within 30 kilometres of the reactor."

He added:

Even if you had a completely paranoid view that somehow the radiation was being concealed, you can’t do it, it’s monitored throughout the world.  We know we can actually monitor exactly what the radiation levels are around there externally so it’s just not happening.

Unfortunately the situation is still not being clearly reported and some foreign embassies including the UK's have begun dispensing iodine pills to their nationals in Tokyo and/or advising them to leave, further inflaming the situation. Panic is reportedly spreading among the expat community there, not helped by the fact that the US is arranging evacuation flights for its citizens.

Analysis

The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant appears to be moving into its closing stages. Barring an unexpected change in circumstances there, the problems will soon be firmly under control without any worker at the site having sustained measurable health consequences from radiation - a testament to the steely professionalism with which they have managed the incident. The Fukushima Daiichi and Daini plants (the two hardest hit, with one worker who was in a crane cab as the quake hit being killed and two others missing since the tsunami struck) seem to have been very, very safe places to be compared to just about anywhere else in the stricken region.

Public health consequences also look to be nil based on reports thus far, apart from possible psychological problems from needless stress and panic.

The reactors involved are a 40-year-old design and much less safe than modern ones. They were hit by an earthquake five times as strong as they were built to take, followed by a tsunami wave now assessed as having being more than 12 metres high - twice the height their defences were specified to withstand. It now appears that despite all this they have not and will not harm a hair on anyone's head radiologically. Even everyday physical-trauma casualties have been very low compared to those seen elsewhere in the disaster zone.

Consider that if you simply work in an office or do something else generally considered very safe, there still exists a tiny chance of fatal disaster. Your office might be hit by a meteorite or a crashing plane or a runaway truck. A factory nearby might burn down or blow up, releasing dangerous pollution, and you might get ill or die. There might, as we see in Japan, be a terrible earthquake and tsunami.

You in your office might also cause harm or risk to others, for instance by filing misleading news stories and causing needless panic and stress, or by directing the operations of a normal not-very-safe industry or sector of activity which could present dangers to people in the event of a disaster striking - housing, transport, financial services etc.

If instead of working in your office you went out and spent your time operating a nuclear powerplant, we now see that the chance of any harm resulting to you or anyone else would be almost nil no matter what happened.

Operating nuclear power stations is not just very safe, or safer than other methods of generating power. It has to be one of the safest forms of activity undertaken by the human race. ®

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