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Three Mile Island nuclear expert: I'm taking potassium iodine tablets against radiation.

Update: a nuclear industry veteran explains why Japan's disaster could take a year to unfold, and contaminate for decades.

Gundersen: Yes. The control rooms have become almost uninhabitable. The operators would have to be in Scott air packs, because the ventilation failed. Otherwise they would be breathing contaminated air. The control room is very close to these reactors. Probably 200 feet away. I doubt there’s much being done in the control rooms. They’re contaminated, and the air is unfit to breathe. It’s very difficult to get anything done if you’re wearing an air pack and a bubble suit.

GlobalPost: So how do they release the pressure? Are they sending people to the reactor to manually do these things?

Gundersen: They’ll send someone out to manually open a valve. And then that person will go back out to manually close a valve. In a high radiation field, there are only so many trips you can make before you’ve exceeded what they call emergency limits. So these people are picking up very large doses in very short periods of time. For their personal health, you can’t send them out again.

So they’re running through the available number of operators to do these high risk maneuvers.

GlobalPost: Is it highly skilled work?

Gundersen: Yes.

GlobalPost: Do these doses endanger their health, or are they below thresholds that would cause a problem?

Gundersen: The probability of these workers getting cancer is dramatically increasing, because the doses they receive in a day are higher than what they get in a year. For every 250 rem received, there will be a cancer. That’s pretty well defined. So if one person picks up 2.5 rem, for every hundred people, one of them will get a cancer. That’s just a statistical crapshoot.

GlobalPost: How safe is Tokyo at this point?

Gundersen: The radiation is being diluted by the wind and spread out. Tokyo is a long way away. Germany is a long way from Chernobyl, and the ground in Germany is so contaminated that they are still prohibiting the hunting of wild boars, 25 years later.

But we don’t have a lot of accurate measures. There’s a U.S. aircraft carrier 100 miles away, and the workers on that aircraft carrier received in one hour the dose they would normally get in one month.

GlobalPost: Is there any risk that the radiation would reach American shores?

Gundersen: Oh it will. Chernobyl reached the U.S. The question is how much radiation? There’s not a lot of data to make that determination right now.

GlobalPost: Should people be concerned about food contamination?

Gundersen: Certainly in Japan they should.

I’ve gone out and bought potassium iodine pills, and I plan to take potassium iodine starting in about 10 days, just because I’m concerned about food contamination. That’s a personal choice right now. My experience says that it would be prudent to get potassium iodine pills and take them, to avoid any of the iodine that might come over. But there’s not a lot of data to support whether or not potassium iodine really helps.

GlobalPost: Is that something that you can buy in a health food store?

Gundersen: Yes, you can get these pills in health food stores and online, although I hear that they’re selling out.

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