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US West Coast: on frontline from nuclear cloud?
by Staff Writers
Los Angeles (AFP) March 14, 2011

Two Australians contaminated in Japan
Sydney (AFP) March 16, 2011 - Two Australian search and rescue personnel showed low levels of radiation contamination after their helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing in Fukushima on Wednesday. Prime Minister Julia Gillard said contamination was detected on their boots after ice on the helicopter blades forced them to land some 20 kilometres (12 miles) outside the exclusion zone around the Fukushima nuclear plant. "I have been briefed that early this morning a US helicopter carrying four Australians and some New Zealand personnel had to land at Fukushima airport. There were issues about ice on on the rotor blades," she said.

"The landing was 20 kilometres outside of the evacuation zone. "All members of the team have now travelled back to where our search and rescue team are working. "On return two of the team were tested for contamination and they showed low levels of contamination on their boots. "They went through decontamination procedures and the advice to me is they are well and the degree of contamination was low level and on their boots." Some 145 Australians remain unaccounted for in Japan since Friday's massive earthquake and tsunami, although there have been no confirmed casualties so far.

Four of the six reactors at the crippled Fukushima facility, 250 kilometres (155 miles) northeast of Tokyo, have now overheated and sparked explosions since Friday's disaster knocked out their cooling systems. Gillard said many Australians were concerned about the developing nuclear crisis in Japan and its impact on family and friends in Tokyo and elsewhere, as well as the possible economic implications for Australia. But she attempted to counter any panic, saying that outside the exclusion zones in place in Japan, contamination was extremely unlikely and health risks negligible.

"Australians returning from Japan are highly unlikely to be contaminated or exposed to significant radiation and will not require checks for radioactivity," Gillard said. The possible consequences of these "very, very awful events" for the Australian economy would only become clearer over time, she added. "As the third largest global economy and a major trading partner, these tragic events in Japan will inevitably have an impact on the global economy and here at home," she said. "At this stage we are certainly not making any dire predictions of the impact on our own economy."

California is closely watching the crisis at a Japanese nuclear plant, but officials downplayed the threat that a radioactive cloud blown across the Pacific could pose for the US West Coast.

While radioactivity could reach the United States from the quake-hit Fukushima plant, the levels would not be high enough to cause major health problems, said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Some experts disagreed, notably pointing to the west-east jet stream, but NRC -- which was asked by Japan on Monday to send nuclear experts to deal with the crisis -- said even the Pacific island state of Hawaii faced little risk.

"Right now it's quite possible that there could be some radiation floating over the United States. But we don't think that it would be particularly harmful... even in a worst case scenario," spokesman David McIntyre told AFP.

The comments came as Japanese authorities grappled with multiple crises at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Tokyo, following Friday's 9.0 quake and tsunami in northeastern Japan.

A third huge explosion rocked the plant Tuesday, while a spokesman said there appeared to be damage to the structure around the number-two reactor, while higher radiation levels were reported between Fukushima and Tokyo.

California's Department of Public Health says it is "monitoring the situation closely," and highlights its Nuclear Emergency Response Program, which sets out measures to be taken in case of a nuclear incident.

The western US state stockpiles emergency supplies including of potassium iodide (KI) tablets -- which can block some types of radiation -- in the area around the San Onofre nuclear power plant near San Diego, officials say.

But the document is clearly designed for a possible radioactive leak from one of California's two nuclear plants -- including due to a long-feared major earthquake here -- rather than a threat from afar.

Japan is more than 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) from the US West Coast, and nearer to Alaska in the north. Some experts suggest that, blown along by the fast-moving jet stream, radioactivity could reach North America in 36 hours.

"Some of the radioactivity could carry in the atmosphere to the West Coast of the US," said nuclear expert Joe Cirincione, head of anti-nuclear group Ploughshares Fund.

He cited the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster to underline how far radioactivity can travel.

"The radioactivity spread around the entire Northern Hemisphere," from the devastated Ukrainian plant, he said.

Harvey Wasserman, a senior adviser to environmental group Greenpeace added that after Chernobyl "fallout did hit the jet stream and then the coast of California, thousands of miles away, within 10 days.

"It then carried all the way across the northern tier of the United States," he continued.

One climate expert used a modeling program from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to determine where the radioactivity would spread.

"The great majority of these runs have taken plumes of radioactivity emitted from Japan's east coast eastwards over the Pacific, with the plumes staying over water for at least five days," said meteorologist Jeff Masters.

"It is highly unlikely that any radiation capable of causing harm to people will be left in atmosphere after seven days and 2000+ miles of travel," added Masters, founder of the Weather Underground online weather forecasting service.

"Even the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which had a far more serious release of radioactivity, was unable to spread significant contamination more than about 1,000 miles," he said.

The NCR spokesman declined to comment in depth on possible scenarios for how quickly or at what levels radioactivity could reach the US mainland.

"Right now the government as a whole has people looking at the situation and asking these questions. We don't have the answers yet. We don't have anything that we can say publicly right now."


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