With the disaster in Japan still unfolding - and countries around the world rethinking the safety of nuclear power plants – it’s time to examine some of the potential hazards of nuclear radiation.

  • First: Radiation can be found naturally almost everywhere in the environment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80% of human exposure comes from natural sources, like heat and light, and 20% of the radiation we get comes from manmade sources, mostly medical X-rays, and the microwaves we use to make popcorn. Most scientists say those types of exposure aren’t harmful.
  • Next: During an explosion at a nuclear power plant, people nearby are exposed to more than a year’s worth of natural radiation within minutes. That can lead to acute radiation syndrome, which causes vomiting, diarrhea and skin damage within hours. Within months, the radiation can destroy their ability to make red blood cells and prevent their intestines from absorbing nutrients. If they don’t recover, they’ll die.
  • There’s also a danger of nuclear fallout, contaminated particles that can spread across the region depending on the wind and weather. Once the particles fall out of the air, they can end up in the groundwater and food chain, and cause birth defects and cancer down the road.
  • If you live near a nuclear reactor, your local community should have plans in place for a radiation emergency, including evacuation routes and emergency shelter locations, as well as the proper decontamination procedures and medical treatment for anyone who is exposed.
  • You may also be advised to create a “shelter in place” – which is what happened in Japan. That’s where everyone within a certain radius is ordered to stay inside, close and lock all doors and windows, turn off fans and air conditioners that bring in air from the outside, and move to an interior room or basement until the authorities say it’s okay to come out.

If you’d like to go further, visit the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission website NRC.gov.