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Our colleagues from the Australian Science Media Centre gathered this comment from a nuclear chemistry expert on the latest development as of March 17 09:53 JST.

 

Prof Stephen Lincoln, Lectures on nuclear chemistry and is an environmental chemist in the School of Chemistry and Physics at the University of Adelaide: 

  “The first steam released into the atmosphere probably contained nitrogen 16 which is radioactive with a half-life of 10 minutes. This means that after 10 minutes the radioactivity is down to a half, after 20 minutes a quarter, after 30 minutes one eighth, after 40 minutes one sixteenth, after 50 minutes one thirty-secondth, after 60 minutes one sixty-fourth and so on – i.e. no long term environmental consequences. The hydrogen explosions occurred because water circulating around the reactor core produces hydrogen through reaction with the zirconium alloy cladding of the fuel rods at high temperature. Hydrogen forms an explosive mixture with air. 
 
  "The fuel rods contain the enriched uranium oxide in which uranium-235 undergoes fission to produce a great amount of energy as heat. Sometimes the fuel rods also contain plutonium oxide in which plutonium-239 oxide similarly undergoes fission. This is apparently the case in at least one of the Fukushima reactors. Even after the fission reaction is closed down in the reactors, as was the case at Fukushima, the fuel rods continue to generate great heat due to the radioactivity of the fission products. Used fuels rods are stored under water in ‘cooling ponds’. It appears that in one such cooling pond at Fukushima the used fuel rods have become exposed to air.  This could result in fracturing of the fuel rod cladding and escape of dangerous radioactive fission products such as iodine-131 (half-life 8 days), cesium-137(half-life 30 years) and strontium-90 (half-life 29 years) which are among the most common.
 
"If these escape into the environment and are ingested by humans:
Iodine-131 accumulates in the thyroid where it can cause cancer, but it can be rapidly removed by dosing victims with non-radioactive iodine.
Cesium-137 accumulates in soft tissues where it can cause cancer. It is not readily removed.
Strontium-90 accumulates in teeth and bones where it can cause bone cancer. It is not readily removed.
 
"Foetuses particularly, and children in general are particularly susceptible to radiation damage as a consequence of the rapid multiplying of their cells as they develop. At this stage it is unclear as to whether or not there has been a significant release of these fission products into the environment from Fukushima.”

 

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