Experts say BC at low risk of Japanese radiation

Harmful radiation leaked into the atmosphere after a fire broke out at a damaged nuclear power plant in Northeastern Japan. Canadian nuclear experts and public health authorities say, however, that Japan's radiation is unlikely to pose any threat to British Columbians.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said "no evidence of a scenario that presents any risk to this country," during a stop in Surrey on Tuesday, according to a CBC report. Provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall issued a statement that while low level radiation was released from nuclear reactors in Japan, any radioactive iodine " particles would take five to six days to reach British Columbia, by which time it would be so dispersed as to be not considered a health risk."

Many Canadians watching the news have been alarmed by the recent developments taking place in Japan's nuclear plant. Japan's national public broadcaster, NHK, reported on Tuesday low-level radiation to leak into Tokyo after a new fire broke out at reactor No.4 of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Tokyo Electric Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has requested the US military to help spray water on the reactor from helicopters on the plant.

Pharmacists at Shoppers Drug Mart and London Drugs say they've received many calls over the weekend from customers wanting to stock up on potassium iodide tablets, which are often given to people at risk of radiation contamination. "I've been receiving calls all weekend asking for those pills," said a pharmacist from Shoppers Drug Mart on Commercial Drive. Pharmacists at various London Drugs locations said they had sold out of the pills due to increased demand, and others are not dispensing.

Michael Brauer, a professor in the School of Environmental Health at the University of British Columbia, said that worries may be unwarranted, however, because the present risk of radiation from Japan is "very low."

"The main form of radiation that has the most severe impact like in Chernobyl is radioactive iodine (iodine 131)," explained Brauer. "It loses half of its radioactivity in eight days. The fastest it could get here if it came directly from Japan is four or five days, and by that time, two things would have happened. One, it would disperse so it's nowhere near the concentration it would have in Japan, and two, it would lose its radioactivity."

"One thing to keep in mind is that we are all exposed to radiation, all the time," Brauer added. "If we get an X-ray, that's way more radiation than we're talking about here."

Tim Meyer, a physicist at TRIUMF, Canada's national particle and nuclear physics laboratory, said that while there is "a level of public concern" in British Columbia, they have no need for concern.

"Signs are now that things are on their way to being tamed," he said.  As of the time of filing this report "the fires are out, a number of reactors at the plant are now in a cold shutdown."

Some people, however, have expressed worries that the Japanese government has not disclosed enough information to assess the situation at the troubled plant in Fukushima. 

"It’s very unfortunate that we just get dribbles of information from the Japanese authorities," said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in an interview on Talk Nation Radio. "It's true that in a difficult situation, it's impossible to know everything, but they should be frank about that. They should talk about the range of potential consequences...they could be modest, they could be very severe."

Brauer, however, says in his view, Japan does not appear to be downplaying the dangers to the rest of the world.

"My perspective is that they (Japanese authorites) aren't hiding anything," he says. "You're talking about a potential situation. We can sit here and talk about the future, but they have the reality to deal with. They've actually been cautious. You're talking about evacuating 100,000 people (around the nuclear power plant), when millions of people are homeless... From what I've seen, their response seems to be measured, and the last thing you want to do is create widespread panic."

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