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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In Japan, plumes of white smoke have been rising for several days now from the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. The fact that those plumes contain radioactive particles have stirred up a good bit of anxiety, even fear, not only inside Japan but far and wide.

We're going to take a closer look now at what, exactly, is in those plumes, and whether or not that fear is justified.

Andre Bouville recently retired as head of the Radiation Dosimetry Unit at the National Cancer Institute, and he joins us now. He's here in the studio.

Welcome to the program.

Dr. ANDRE BOUVILLE: Thank you.

NORRIS: Most important is this big question at this point: What risk do those plumes pose - particularly for people, for now, who are close to the nuclear plant?

Dr. BOUVILLE: For now, I would say that there is very little risk. Those plumes resemble those that were emitted during the Three Mile Island accident. And really, they didn't cause any significant risk to the population. It's mainly steam with some radioactive noble gases - which do not impact any harm on the people - plus iodine and probably some cesium, but in small quantities.

NORRIS: Now, we're hearing, though, that the radiation level in and around the plant is quite high. How do we put that in context, then?

Dr. BOUVILLE: Well, my interpretation is that the readings, the radiation readings that you're referring to are due to external irradiation. So they come from the plant itself, from inside the plant. But they are not due to the radioactive cloud - or in small amount to the radioactive cloud.

NORRIS: Now, you're saying that this is similar to what this nation saw in 1979, after the Three Mile Island disaster. We are told that this is unlike Chernobyl, which was a much greater release of radioactive material.

Dr. BOUVILLE: Exactly.

NORRIS: But I'm wondering, because there's a lot of uncertainty right now in Japan, what we learned from the accident in Chernobyl should more radioactive material be dispersed into the environment. What did we learn from Chernobyl about cloud drifts, and how that material moves geographically?

Dr. BOUVILLE: What we learned from the Chernobyl accident is that the cloud can move very far from the reactor site.

NORRIS: It can move very far?

Dr. BOUVILLE: Very far. In fact, we were able to follow the radioactive cloud all around the world after the Chernobyl accident. Of course, the radiation levels decrease as you move away from the reactor.

NORRIS: And what would that mean, then, for areas in the Pacific Ocean that this might pass over?

Dr. BOUVILLE: Dilution would be so great that I do not expect that the levels would be high. But I must say that it's very likely that if there is a substantial release of radioactivity in the environment, then all countries will monitor the foodstuffs that are imported, or that come from the vicinity of Japan.

This was the case after the Chernobyl accident. All imported foodstuffs were monitored to make sure that the radiation levels in those animals were not too great.

NORRIS: If you pick up one of many newspapers on the West Coast of this country, you will likely see a headline telling residents in that part of the country that radioactive material is heading in this direction, and is likely to hit our atmosphere sometime toward the end of the week. What does that mean for people who live up and down the West Coast, and are quite concerned about this?

Dr. BOUVILLE: There is reason to be concerned because any radiation level - at any level - can cause cancer. But the probability is very, very small.

You know, we live in a sea of radiation. There is natural radiation due to uranium, sorium(ph), in the ground, the former cosmic rays coming from the sky. We also are subjected to medical irradiation.

So the radioactive cloud will bring another source of exposure, if you will. But judging from the Chernobyl experience, the West Coast of the United States is so far from Japan that the levels should be very small.

NORRIS: Andre Bouville, thank you very much for coming in to talk to us.

Dr. BOUVILLE: Oh, you're quite welcome.

NORRIS: Andre Bouville is recently retired as head of the Radiation Dosimetry Unit at the National Cancer Institute.

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