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Ocean's expanse seen preventing radiation threat to wider world

It's a big ocean between northeastern Japan and the United States and thousands of miles from the crippled nuclear power plant to much of Asia.

That means there's little chance -- at least for now -- that radiation from the shattered reactors could pose a serious threat to the wider world.

Experts say the amount of radioactivity emitted by the facility has been relatively minor and should dissipate quickly over the Pacific Ocean.

"Every mile of ocean it crosses, the more it disperses," said Peter Caracappa, a radiation safety officer and clinical assistant professor of nuclear engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

The only people at immediate risk are workers inside the plant and the people living closest to it. The danger of radiation exposure elsewhere is minuscule -- unless the plant sustains a complete meltdown, which would sharply escalate the dangers. Japanese officials told the International Atomic Energy Agency on Tuesday that a fire had broken out in a fuel storage pond where used nuclear fuel is kept cool and that radiation had been "released directly into the atmosphere."

If the water level in such storage ponds drops to the level of the fuel, a worker standing at the railing looking down on the pool would receive a lethal dose within seconds, according to a study by the Millstone nuclear plant in Connecticut.

Such intense radiation can prevent workers from approaching the reactor or turn their tasks "into suicide missions," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who heads the nuclear safety program of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Next in the line of danger would be those who live within a 20-mile radius. Areas around the plant have been evacuated for that reason.

"The odds of someone outside the plant getting an acute injury -- sick in the next couple of weeks -- is close to zero," said John Moulder, a professor of radiation oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee who studies the effects of radiation exposure.

The radioactive particles probably contain materials linked to cancer in high doses, including cesium and iodine. The long-term cancer risk for nearby residents will depend on exposure and cleanup efforts, Moulder said.

Radioactive cesium and iodine also can combine with the salt in sea water to become sodium iodide and cesium chloride, which are common elements that would readily dilute in the wide expanse of the Pacific, according to Steven Reese, director of the Radiation Center at Oregon State.

Winds in the area are currently blowing toward the coast because of a winter storm. But that will change to a brisk wind blowing out to sea at least through today, he said by telephone. Still, the forecast offered little comfort to those living in the area -- and in nearby countries such as Russia.

The Russian Emergencies Ministry said it was monitoring radiation levels and had recorded no increase.

Many Russians, however, distrust the reassurances, perhaps remembering the Chernobyl disaster 25 years ago and how long it took the Soviet government to reveal the true dangers of the radiation. "The mass media tells us that the wind is blowing the other way, that radiation poses no threat. But people are a mess," Valentina Chupina, a nanny in Vladivostok, said in a comment posted on the website of the newspaper Delovoi Peterburg. "They don't believe that if something happens we'll be warned."

Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency said a single reading at one location in the Japanese plant recorded levels of 400 millisieverts, or 40 rems, per hour.

"You start getting radiation sickness at around 100 rems" -- nausea and vomiting. Damage to blood cells can show up two to four weeks later, said Dr. Fred Mettler, a University of New Mexico radiologist and adviser to the United Nations on radiation safety.

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