Japan's Nuclear Disaster Pose Low Risk of Radioactive Exposure for China

Feature Story - 2011-03-16
The radioactive releases that have occurred thus far in Fukushima, Japan, are highly unlikely to be an immediate danger to China. Even in the worst-case scenario, the relative risk to north China would be low.

Satellite image of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant

Beijing - Our hearts, thoughts, and prayers are with the people of Japan as they continue both the earthquake recovery effort and the struggle to bring the Fukushima nuclear reactors under control.

We are especially moved by the power plant workers who have stayed behind, braving high levels of radioactivity to prevent a worse disaster. They are bearing the brunt of the radioactivity right now; we salute them for their resilience and dedication, and hope that they will pull through with minimal effect.

For residents in China, there is very little need to worry for now. The risk of radioactive exposure is very low: The radioactive releases that have occurred thus far are highly unlikely to be an immediate danger to China.

Even in the worst-case scenario - a massive release of radiation resulting from a breach in the containment vessel surrounding the core or damage to the spent fuel - the relative risk to north China would be low.

Simulations show that radioactive plumes from light-water reactors - such as the ones in Fukushima - will remain lower in the atmosphere than those emitted by the nuclear reactors of Chernobyl. This means that the radioactivity would not spread as far, with lower risks of exposure for regions thousands of kilometers away. Most of the radiation would contaminate the areas up to several hundred kilometers from the nuclear reactor.

Wind direction and speed is another factor. The wind direction is forecasted to turn to the east, blowing radioactive elements out over the Pacific.

The Chinese government should monitor wind direction and wind speed, as well as ask for more specific data about the releases of radioactivity from the Japanese government.

wind direction from Fukushima nuclear power plant © zamgThe forecast of wind direction from the state meteorological service of Austria - ©zamg

Should people in China take any precautions right now?

Iodine pills have significant side effects and should not be taken unless the government issues instructions, or if a large radioactive cloud is approaching. They should also only be taken in prescribed doses. The pills are only effective before potential exposure, to protect against the absorption of radioactive iodine by the thyroid gland.

There is little use in buying a Geiger counter (to detect radioactivity). Handheld meters require trained users to conduct and interpret measurements to produce reliable results. The meters would only be useful if there is a strong indication that there is radioactive contamination and the government is not being truthful about it.

What can people do in case the radioactivity does spread to China?

The first thing for people to do is to get informed (see links below). Once contamination is confirmed, people are advised to stay inside, close windows, and wash thoroughly if you have been outside. In areas where elevated radiation is reported, avoid drinking milk and wash vegetables. Consider taking iodine pills if available.

Time is of paramount importance if an order to stay indoors is issued. As long as the order is in force, people should only leave their homes if they need acute medical attention, not (for example) to get food or water supplies. The need for stay indoors may range from hours to days.

China has deployed radiation test vehicles around major cities in China, especially the coastal areas close to Japan. The Ministry of Environmental Protection is monitoring the situation and has updated analyses daily at www.mep.gov.cn. Timely, honest information disclosure is critical for the government to prevent people from panicking.

What are the implications of the Fukushima nuclear disaster for China?

As the Fukushima nuclear reactors are spiraling out of control and threatening the wellbeing of the nearby people and environment, it is high time for China and other countries reflect on and rethink their nuclear programs. China can – and should – develop a comprehensive package to improve its energy efficiency, invest in the safer and cleaner options of wind and solar energy, and reform the state grid system to allow for the massive uptake of renewable energy.

Nuclear power is inherently dangerous and polluting: even without the risk of earthquakes or tsunamis, the disposal of nuclear waste can be another nightmare. With such clean energy options as wind and solar, it's time we left nuclear behind.

For more English-language updates on the Fukushima nuclear reactors:

Greenpeace International is closely monitoring the situation.

The Guardian has a live news blog.

NHK has a live stream in English.

China's Ministry of Environmental Protection

The Greenpeace Japan office tweets in English at @gpjen, and our international office updates at @Greenpeace