LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:
People as far as California are worried about exposure to radiation. But experts say that anxiety is misplaced. Right now the only people in danger are the ones who actually work at the nuclear plant. NPR's Jon Hamilton has the story.
JON HAMILTON: Links directs the Center for Public Health Preparedness at Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health. He says the people he's worried about are the workers still trying to gain control of the overheating nuclear reactors at Dai-ichi.
JONATHAN LINKS: I think it likely that they've gotten doses worth paying attention to.
HAMILTON: At one point, a reading at the plant indicated there was enough radiation to cause acute radiation sickness for anyone exposed for more than a couple of hours. But Links says that was a peak level. Subsequent readings have shown much less radiation.
LINKS: The critical piece of information that's missing is how long they were exposed to that rate.
HAMILTON: Links says he would have been concerned about exposure among people who live near the plant. But the government quickly evacuated everyone within 12 miles.
LINKS: And so the group that would otherwise be at risk, those local residents were evacuated very early on. And I think at this point it's very unlikely they received any noticeable dose at all.
HAMILTON: As for people in the rest of Japan, Links says something extraordinary would have to happen at the Dai-ichi plant before they would face any risk. And even then, he says, the situation in Fukushima would not resemble Chernobyl in 1986; there, a nuclear reactor exploded and released enough radiation to sicken or kill dozens of people within hours.
LINKS: Were there to be releases, the concern would not be about acute effects. It would be about the main delayed effect, which is cancer.
HAMILTON: Evelyn Talbott is an epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh, who studied what happened to 32,000 people who lived near the reactor.
EVELYN TALBOTT: There was radiation leakage, you know, during the 10 days after the accident. The exposure was on average about 25 millirem, which is a couple of chest X-rays.
HAMILTON: Not much, although some scientists believe it may have been more. In any case, Talbott was part of a team which tracked the health of people in the area for decades.
TALBOTT: So the good news was, after 20 years, we really didn't see any overall cancer increase, comparing the 32,000 people at Three Mile Island with the individuals - the rest of the individuals in Pennsylvania.
HAMILTON: It's important to keep the problem of radiation in context. Luis Echavarri is the director-general of the Nuclear Energy Agency at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. He says the biggest problems in Japan are still the earthquake and the tsunami.
LUIS ECHAVARRI: The number of people killed by these natural events is rising and rising. So far, the effects of the radiation on people have nothing to do with that.
HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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