We're prepared not only for a possible nuclear power plant meltdown of our own, but we're also more prepared for a terrorist "dirty bomb." The amount of radiation released during the Fukushima nuclear disaster was so great that the level of atmospheric radioactive aerosols that wafted across the ocean into Washington state was 10,000 to 100,000 times greater than normal levels in the week following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that triggered the disaster. Fukushima was a disaster for Japan, but it points the way to huge advancements in the technology that's used for monitoring nuclear material and detecting covert nuclear operations around the world. In other words, it can help fight potential nuclear terrorism.
The material detected from Fukushima, Xenon 133, is of the same chemical family as helium and argon and is an inert gas, meaning it does not react with other chemicals. The gas is not harmful in small doses and is used medically to study the flow of blood through the brain and the flow of air through the lungs. The average person in the US receives about 16.4 microsieverts of radiation dose per day from various sources of naturally occurring radiation, such as radioactive materials in the soil, cosmic radiation from outer space and naturally occurring radioactive materials within the body.
In Washington, the increased levels from Fukushima meant the daily dose during that time could have been about 16.4017. A harmful amount that would cause obvious symptoms of exposure is anywhere from two to three million microsieverts at one time. Physicist Tracy Tipping says, "You can detect the increase but being detectable does not mean it's harmful."
Xenon 133 is a nuclear fission product that is closely monitored at nuclear stations around the world because it can be used to determine whether a country has conducted an illegal or covert nuclear test explosion. Similarly to how 911 emergency centers can pinpoint the location of a cell phone call by triangulating the signal between many different cell towers, nuclear stations within an established network share information on Xenon 133 and other radioactive materials to determine where they originated. This network is crucial to detecting clandestine nuclear tests.
The detection of the radioactive gas in Washington is significant because it is a way to test this technology and perhaps create a more sensitive monitoring system--one that's capable of detecting extremely small amounts of the gas. The network let US engineer Steven Biegalski know what was going on right away. He says, "As the measurements came in sooner and at higher concentrations than we initially expected, we quickly came to the conclusion that there were some major core melts at those facilities. I remember being in the lab thinking, 'Wow, if this is all true we have a far more bigger accident than what we're hearing right now.'"
And it was.
We made it through the Japanese meltdown, but WHO KNOWS what will happen in the future, especially when that dreaded date of December 21, 2012 arrives? Sometimes a novel can tell you more than nonfiction, and Whitley Strieber's novel "2012" is one of these. You can get it from the Whitley Strieber Collection, and it will come with an autographed bookplate that was designed by Whitley!