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French Try To Avoid Radiation Panic, Chernobyl Missteps

French Try To Avoid Radiation Panic, Chernobyl Missteps

Even as the French authorities discard comparisons with Chernobyl, fear of the radioactive plume travelling from Japan sparks a run on iodine pills. Similar worries also found in Russia, the U.S.


PARIS - The question might seem out of place at a time when Japanese relief workers continue to drop water over the spent fuel pools, but researchers have already started making projections of the radioactive plume's possible movements.

The French nuclear safety commission Institut National de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire (IRSN) has announced that radioactive particles (rare gases, krypton, iodine and caesium) released into the atmosphere by the crippled Japanese nuclear plant represent only a tenth of the those released during the Chernobyl accident 25 years ago. The estimate does not take into account any radioactive releases that might occur in the future.

According to the IRSN, these particles are going to slowly disperse into the atmosphere as an odorless and colorless cloud. The radioactive plume is expected to move over the Pacific Ocean for some days – only in the Northern hemisphere, and eventually reach Canada and the United States.

Total transparency

Researchers think it is unlikely the plume will reach French Polynesia or New Caledonia. The cloud, which is pushed by very strong winds and travels at an altitude of more than 2,000 meters, is likely to hit Europe and some parts of Russia early next week.

If during the Chernobyl disaster the IRSN was less than candid in its statements about radiation risks, this time the institute has adopted a policy of full transparency: its website keeps track of any changes in radiation levels over the French territory. The system, called "Criter Japon," offers hourly updated information about the level of Gamma radiation in the air. The ISRN takes is readings from 163 stations known together as the Téléray network. Measurements are also going to be conducted on aerosol filters and rain water. The radioactive plume is likely to be diluted by rain, which would result in a lower level of radioactivity within the cloud.

"We are practically sure that no abnormalities will be detected by our stations, but very low doses of radioactivity might be found in certain dust specimens," said Didier Champin, environment director for the IRSN.

In the meantime, growing fear of radioactivity is prompting a global rush on iodine tablets, which are thought to reduce the risk of thyroid cancer. French authorities said that as a precautionary measure they will send anti-radiation tablets to the Pacific islands of French Polynesia and New Caledonia. They added, however, that for the time being taking such pills are "useless and counter-productive." Patrick Gurmelom, health expert for the IRSN, said Thursday that iodine tablets might trigger side effects such as diarrhoea, vomiting and skin rashes.

French people are not the only ones rushing to pharmacies. Residents in far eastern Russia have done the same, despite repeated statements by Russian authorities that radioactivity levels are well below safety limits and do not pose any threat to human health.

In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has also tried to reassure the public, declaring that "all the information available shows that Hawaii, Alaska and the Western part of the country are not expected to be affected by dangerous levels of radioactivity." US doctors, furthermore, are cautioning people not to take iodine pills without a medical prescription. Nevertheless, the main US manufacturer of potassium iodine tablets has already run out of stock.

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