Don’t Panic over Fukushima-but Do Something

By Jane M. Orient, M.D.

The earth moved in Japan, and thousands of people were buried in rubble or washed out to sea. Hundreds of thousands are homeless, and suffering from thirst, hunger, and cold. Lacking reliable electricity, much of industry is shut down even if undamaged.

We don’t know the total death toll as yet, but so far the score is earthquake and tsunami around 10,000; nuclear energy, 0. But the damaged nuclear reactors are nonetheless at the top of the news.

The tsunami affected the other side of the Pacific too; some Americans lost their lives, or had to be rescued by the Coast Guard. The biggest fear, however, is not the tidal wave, but the prospect that demon radiation will cross the Pacific and rain down death. Potassium iodide tablets are selling out. Anti-nuclear activists call for shutting down nuclear energy.

I wouldn’t criticize people for buying potassium iodide; I already have some. If you ever really need it, you probably won’t be able to get it. Don’t assume that our government has stockpiled KI or other essentials.

There are a lot of other things that the Japanese need more right now, such as bottled water and food. You do have some of that stored away, don’t you?

Postage-Stamp Sized RadSticker

Another need is for radiation monitoring instruments. More than 1,000 RadStickers, postage-stamp sized detectors that instantly measure dangerous levels of radiation, have been sent to Japan as a gift by an American scientist. RadStickers are now available again after the entire U.S. supply was commandeered for use in Japan.]

One of my personal projects is to help distribute RadStickers to American firefighters and police officers so they will have them in the event of a real nuclear disaster, such as detonation of a terrorist (or North Korean) nuclear bomb. I have a RadSticker on my credit card, and also carry a credit-card sized SIRAD (self-indicating instant radiation alert dosimeter, see In addition, I have a NukAlert, which is a dose-rate meter that chirps like a bird if it detects dose rates greater than 0.1 rad/hr (

My SIRAD is showing a dose of between 2 and 5 rads because I usually forget to take it out of my carry-on luggage before it goes through the x-ray machine. It has made about 20 trips through there by now. It makes me wonder how much the TSA agent gets from standing by the machine all day. It is shielded, of course, but how effectively? I don’t see any of those lead aprons that x-ray technicians wear. If I worked for TSA, I’d have a SIRAD in my pocket. Agents used to be issued dosimeters.

The main purpose of RadStickers is to prevent panic. They are not very sensitive, so they are not going to pick up background radiation, or the excess radiation from a load of bananas or pottery. The lowest reading is 25 rads. An acute dose of less than 100 rads probably wouldn’t make you sick. A dose between 300 and 400 rads causes acute radiation sickness and a 50% chance of death. There’s a widespread belief that the teeniest dose might increase your risk of getting cancer in 20 years, say adding 1% to the 25% risk you have anyway, but there is also much evidence that low doses are actually protective.

For perspective, here are some numbers. At the gate of one Japanese plant during a fire, the dose-rate was temporarily as high as 11,000 microsieverts/hr, quickly dropping back to 600 microsieverts/hr. The level at the edge of the evacuation zone was 300 microsieverts/hr. In the older radiation-protection units, that’s from 1.1 rem/hr down to 0.03 rem/hr. The dose from one chest x-ray is about 0.01 rem and from a full-body spiral CT scan up to 10 rem. (In this context 1 rem is about the same as 1 rad.) If you stood at the gate of the plant for 10 hours at the highest dose-rate, you’d get as much radiation as from the total-body CT scan.

Irresponsible terror-mongers have been distributing material on the internet predicting an instantly lethal dose of 750 rads hitting western and intermountain North America within 10 days. This is preposterous.

Senator Lieberman is calling for a moratorium on U.S. nuclear power plants. Actually, we have had the near equivalent ever since Three Mile Island killed nobody, with a loss of some $10 trillion to our economy. China and India are not considering any such nonsense.

From the horror in Japan we should at least try to learn something. There are radiation threats in the world-the ones significant to the general population are from nuclear weapons. (Nuclear power plants absolutely cannot produce a nuclear explosion, though there have been explosions of hydrogen gas.) Americans have very little knowledge and less preparedness, and are thus highly vulnerable to merchants of fear.

You don’t need to believe anything I or anyone else says about your radiation exposure. You can measure it for yourself with an instrument you can make from materials you probably have around the house. There were rudimentary instructions in Parade magazine in the 1950s. Good, field-tested instructions can be downloaded free from the internet ( Thousands of schoolchildren have successfully made a Kearny fallout meter. So can you.

Let us do what we can to help people in Japan. Let us also improve our own knowledge of radiation and ability to survive catastrophes that are much more likely than a tsunami hitting the nuclear generating station near Phoenix.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Panic over Fukushima-but Do Something

  1. The pictured RadSticker was available last week for about $8. But now you can’t get one at all. The federal government is commandeering all inventory and production to send to Japan. Millions of them should have been produced years ago–but the federal government appears to have a deliberate policy of leaving Americans as uninformed and vulnerable as possible with regard to radiation threats. The lesson is that you can’t wait until the last minute to prepare. If you don’t have a home-makeable Kearny fallout meter, or the instructions, at least download a free copy from the internet–now. The whole book is available at, and the instructions at Factory-made KFMs are available but pricey. See and search on “roadman911” for some demos.

  2. I would retitle the article by Jane M. Orient, MD to read:

    There Is Not a Nuclear Crisis in Japan–it is a Global Crisis !
    Homo sapiens would be better termed homo ignoramus because we never learn from history. Churchill was right on when he said “What we have learned about what man learns from history is that he learns nothing from history.” We did not learn from Chernobyl and we are not learning from the current crisis.

    (1) There is no international action being taken despite this being a GLOBAL issue. What is the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) doing and
    (2) where is the leadership from our American experts?
    (3) where are the leaders of major countries in the world today discussing this crisis as if it were a crisis?
    (4) is this out of the purview of the UN; I do not know.

    If you go to the IAEA website you read something like this:
    “In response to the situation, Director General Amano also explained the IAEA´ dual role to use emergency communication channels to exchange verified, official information between Japan and other IAEA Member States, as well as to coordinate the delivery of international assistance, should Japan or other affected countries request it.” I would not be waiting for Japan to be requesting advice on a matter that affects life on the planet. Too often, those in crisis are so shocked that they are not aware of the need to ask for help. The video of Director General Amano is to my thinking just way too casual a response to a catastrophe. Drastic situations require more than this. I urge you to go to the IAEA website or go to YouTube and listen to what seems to me to be much ado about nothing. The word rhetoric comes to mind, or perhaps “hot air” would be more appropriate to the occasion.

    Is it conceivable that we do not have an existing task force that is regularly meeting to discuss issues of nuclear reactor safety? We have an FDA that regulates drugs to the ninth degree and yet we have no agency that can speak effectively and immediately as to what should be done in Japan, or at the very least immediately initiate communications with Japanese officials who must regard this as not being solely a Japanese problem. If the wind shifts this will be a Korean and a Chinese problem. We, the people, should not be waiting for a Japanese official to ask for suggestions; that would equate with the usual 11th request for help.

    You mean to tell me that in 2011 there is no way to cool down the spent fuel rods other than firemen with hoses? We can deliver a air-to-ground missile with surgical accuracy but we can’t seem to dump water over a nuclear reactor or to find another material that will cool the rods down without conversion of water to steam with aerosol spread of radiation.

    Where are those that think pre-emptively and pro-actively rather than acting reactively?
    What about dealing with the “spent” fuel rods so that you do not accumulate a mass of spent rods that become critical in the event of any kind of an accident?
    What about spending some bucks on a system to cool off the reactor in the event of earthquakes, tsunamis or terrorist attacks?
    Where is the visionary thinking, the boundless creativity that is supposed to distinguish mankind from “lesser” animals on planet Earth.
    This is a sorry state of affairs and I am surprised that the peoples of the world are not raising their voices in harsh criticism about the current state of buffoonery that appears to typify the actions of powers in the world today into whose hands we entrust our lives and those that come hopefully after us.

  3. Pingback: Dr. Says Don’t Panic over Fukushima-but Do Something | MediBlog

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