Foreign Policy Blogs

Doses and exposures and plutonium – oh my!

No, I am absolutely not downplaying the potential contamination and exposures that are arising as a result of the ongoing mess at Fukushima. I have seen ample photos of severe radiation burns resulting from exposure to powerful strontium-90 sources discarded by Soviet authorities and stumbled upon by hapless woodsmen in the Republic of Georgia.  I have seen photos of the innocents who dusted their faces with glowing cobalt-60 powder when someone hoping to cash in on scrap metal busted open a sealed source.  Its ugly.  Radiation burns of that magnitude, if they don’t kill you, never heal.  Necrotic tissue has to be cut away and new skin grafted on.  And sometimes that doesn’t heal either. Victims often get addicted to morphine in order to handle the pain of the injuries. The closest we’ve come thus far at Fukushima was when three TEPCO contractors were exposed to 180 millisieverts of radiation from radioactive water in the basement of the Unit 3 reactor turbine building. Incidentally, they kept on working even when their dosimeters alarmed. Yikes!

However, I think its critical to make clear that, when it comes to estimated doses and their impact, the potential for confusion is even more likely than trying to figure out what’s going on inside the primary containments of Units 1-3.  Again, the public’s fear surrounding anything related to radiation is particularly acute and when one begins to hear about cesium-137, iodine-131 and very toxic plutonium being found anywhere outside the reactors, it is very easy to begin to panic.  In this case, it is important to separate fact from fiction, what is adequately safe from what is not.  And when to run like hell.

There is still no consensus among epidemiologists regarding exposures in the aftermath of the Chornobyl accident, and that happened 25 years ago.  Dose reconstruction from actual exposures and doses stemming from the Fukushima situation are likely to take that long, if not longer. However, there are well-known limits established for what is safe for the public, what is safe for plant workers, and what is safe for emergency workers.  They are well-known, but they can also be a bit controversial.

When it comes to doses, there are a number of very good organizations whose work it is to assess this stuff.  The National Council on Radiological Protection and Measurements (NCRP) has been providing guidance to the U.S. government and the media in reporting all the dose and contamination information being detected at Fukushima.  The NCRP has published guidelines that provide limits at each stage of a nuclear or radiological incident.  They can be found here:”>

The French Institut de Radioprotection et de Surete Nucleare (IRSN) is another top notch organization throwing its hat into the contaminated ring.  They have done an excellent animated dose reconstruction of the area surrounding the plant.  It can be found here:

And here’s an interesting link to a blog by International Press Review journalist Arthur Zbygniew. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but it has some good info:

And here’s a nifty little piece from the Vancouver Sun about our friend, radiation. Its all around you, ya know!

Over at Arms Control Wonk (, the ever wonky Jeffrey Lewis characterized the panel discussion on Fukushima at the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference Monday as such:

“We had an oddly bloodless discussion this morning of the unfolding events at Fukushima. One thing that struck me about the panel, with perhaps Mark Hibbs excepted, was the gap in perception between nuclear industry and the public at large. The panel seemed to view this as an unfortunate inconvenience for the coming nuclear renaissance. To me, at least, that seems like the captain of the Titanic wondering whether he’s still going to make his dinner reservations.”

Well done Jeffrey. But I do think that there is a fine line between communicating effectively and truthfully to the public and screaming like lunatics that the end is nigh with every spike of a dosimeter, particularly when the final verdict is a long way away. A current NRC Commissioner and a previous NRC Chairman were on that panel. They may know a wee bit about nuclear stuff. Both are PhDs, one in engineering, the other in physics. Just sayin. Its their jobs to be calm about this stuff.

On one thing I will agree: while pronouncements of the death of the nuclear industry are premature, whether industry likes it or not, the impact of the Fukushima miasma will most certainly put a damper on the so-called nuclear renaissance. At least for now.



Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.

Great Decisions Discussion group