Radioactive particles of uranium, thorium, radium, cesium, strontium, polonium, tellurium and americium are still afloat throughout Northern Japan more than six years after a tsunami slammed into the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant causing three full-blown nuclear meltdowns. That was the conclusion reached by two of the world’s leading radiation experts after conducting an extensive five-year monitoring project.
Gundersen represents Fairewinds Associates and is a nuclear engineer, former power plant operator and industry executive, turned whistleblower, and was CNN’s play-by-play on-air expert during the 2011 meltdowns. Kaltofen, of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), is a licensed civil engineer and is renowned as a leading experts on radioactive contamination in the environment.
A Fairewinds Associates’ video from 2012 features Gundersen collecting five samples of surface soil from random places throughout Tokyo — places including a sidewalk crack, a rooftop garden, and a previously decontaminated children’s playground. The samples were bagged, declared through Customs, and brought back to the U.S. for testing. All five samples were so radioactive that according to Gundersen, they “qualified as radioactive waste here in the United States and would have to be sent to Texas to be disposed of.” Those five examples were not included as part of the recently released study, but Gundersen went back to Tokyo for samples in 2016. Those samples were included, and were radioactive, and according to Gundersen were “similar to what I found in Tokyo in .”
In contrast to external X-rays, gamma, beta or alpha rays, hot particles are small mobile pieces of radioactive elements that can be breathed in, drunk or eaten in food. The fragments can then become lodged in bodily tissue where they will emanate high-intensity ionizing radiation for months or years, damaging and twisting cells, potentially causing myriad diseases and cancer. The study points out, “Contaminated environmental dusts can accumulate in indoor spaces, potentially causing radiation exposures to humans via inhalation, dermal contact, and ingestion.”
The study also explains, “Given the wide variability in hot particle sizes, activities, and occurrence; some individuals may experience a hot particle dose that is higher or lower than the dose calculated by using averaged environmental data.” For example, a person living in a contaminated area might use a leaf blower or sweep a floor containing a hefty amount of hot particle-laden dust and receive a large does in a short time, whereas other people in the same area, exposed to the same background radiation and environmental averages, may not take as heavy a hit as the housekeeper that sweeps floors for a living. People exposed to more dust on the job, or who simply have bad luck and haphazardly breathe in hot radioactive dust, are at an increased risk for cancer and disease. High winds can also randomly pick up radioactive surface soil, rendering it airborne and endangering any unsuspecting subject unlucky enough to breath it in.
Hot particles, or “internal particle emitters” as they are sometimes called, also carry unique epidemiological risks as compared to a chest X-ray by contrast. The dangers from radiation are calculated by the dose a subject receives, but the manner in which that dose is received can also play a critical factor in the amount of damage to a person’s health.
“Comparing external radiation to hot particles inside the body is an inappropriate analogy,” Gundersen toldEnviroNewsin an email. “Hot particles deliver a lot of energy to a very localized group of cells that surround them and can therefore cause significant localized cell damage. External radiation is diffuse. For example, the weight from a stiletto high heal shoe is the same as the weight while wearing loafers, but the high heal is damaging because its force is localized.”
Kaltofen elaborated with an analogy of his own in a followup email with EnviroNews saying:
Dose is the amount of energy in joules absorbed by tissue. Imagine Fred with a one joule gamma dose to the whole body from living in a dentist’s office over a lifetime, versus Rhonda with exactly the same dose as alpha absorbed by the lung from a hot particle. Standard health physics theory says that Fred will almost certainly be fine, but Rhonda has about a 10 percent chance of dying from lung cancer — even though the doses are the same.
External radiation and internal hot particles both follow exactly the same health physics rules, even though they cause different kinds of biological damage. Our data simply shows that you can’t understand radiation risk without measuring both.
Some isotopes, like plutonium, only pose danger to an organism inside the body. As an alpha emitter, plutonium’s rays are blocked by the skin and not strong enough to penetrate deep into bodily tissue. However, when inhaled or ingested, plutonium’s ionizing alpha rays twist and shred cells, making it one of the most carcinogenic and mutagenic substances on the planet.
“Measuring radioactive dust exposures can be like sitting by a fireplace,” Dr. Kaltofen explained in a press release. “Near the fire you get a little warm, but once in a while the fire throws off a spark that can actually burn you.”
“We weren’t trying to see just somebody’s theoretical average result,” Kaltofen continued in the press release. “We looked at how people actually encounter radioactive dust in their real lives. [By] combining microanalytical methods with traditional health physics models… we found that some people were breathing or ingesting enough radioactive dust to have a real increase in their risk of suffering a future health problem. This was especially true of children and younger people, who inhale or ingest proportionately more dust than adults.”
“Individuals in the contaminated zone, and potentially well outside of the mapped contaminated zone, may receive a dose that is higher than the mean dose calculated from average environmental data, due to inhalation or ingestion of radioactively-hot dust and soil particles,” the study says in summation. “Accurate radiation risk assessments therefore require data for hot particle exposure as well as for exposure to more uniform