Frequently Asked Questions About Japan's Nuclear Reactors

FAQ for Arizona regarding the Fukushima Reactors


For more information and continual updates as to the unfolding events, please log in to the CEN site and join the “Japan Earthquake/Tsunami March 2011” Response Group.

Q. What is being done to assess the United States’ risk from the events in Japan?

A. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is monitoring the events in Japan and the US.

Q. Will the radiation in Japan affect people in the United States?

A. At present, the levels of radiation have not increased. Due to the distance from Japan, future levels are highly unlikely to be above normal radiation levels in the atmosphere.

Therefore, radiation from Japan will not impact your health in the short or long term.

Q.  Should I take Potassium Iodide (KI) and what is it?

A.  No, Potassium Iodide (KI) is not recommended at this time. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization recommend the use of KI only when people are exposed to high levels of radiation, such as those who were in the Japanese nuclear power plants when the explosions occurred.

KI is a medicine used to protect the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine after high levels of radiation exposure.  Like many medicines, KI can have side effects in sensitive people or people with certain medical conditions, or when not taken according to the advice of your physician.

Q.  I have heard that pharmacies are running out of Potassium Iodide, what should I do?

A. It is not anticipated that KI will be necessary as a result of the events in Japan. If it ever would become necessary to take potassium iodide, a recommendation would be made on how to acquire the drug and when to take it. The federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile keeps supplies of KI and can deliver emergency equipment and supplies within 12 hours.

Q. Should I get KI in case the radiation levels get higher?

A. The Federal Government is monitoring the levels and will notify the public if an increase in radiation is detected.  No health risks due to radiation are anticipated and it is not necessary to have KI on hand.

Q. I hear the radiation being released is increasing, is there a problem for the United States?

A. Currently Units 1, 2, 3, and 4, appear to be releasing some radioactive material. These releases, while significant near the plant, are not large enough for the Japanese government to evacuate further than 12 miles from the plant. Any release will be tremendously diluted before it can reach the U.S. mainland. Several Federal Agencies are tracking the air masses as they move around the world so that samples can be taken to assure the concentrations of any radioactive material is known if it is detectable. A similar program was in place when several countries were conducting nuclear weapons tests.

Q. How can I protect myself?

A. It is important to remember that according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), there is no risk to anyone in the United States at this time. The Environmental Protection Agency has permanent radiation monitoring stations on the West coast, and the EPA is keeping federal agencies informed.

Keep yourself and your family informed by obtaining accurate information. Know where to get information, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ARRA, or the NRC, rather than relying on unverified websites, where invalid information may spread quickly.

Follow the instructions of your local government’s authorities after any emergency.

Q. What is the Federal family, i.e., NRC-EPA-DOE, doing to monitor the radiological consequence of the event in Japan on the United States?

A. The NRC is coordinating its actions with other Federal agencies as part of the U.S. government response. The NRC is examining all available information as part of the effort to analyze the event and understand its implications both for Japan and the United States.

U.S. nuclear power plants have sensitive equipment to monitor the status of radiological conditions. Additionally, personnel at nuclear power plants have specific knowledge in radiological field monitoring techniques and could assist State and Federal personnel in environmental sampling activities, should that be necessary to evaluate public health and safety concerns.

EPA has permanent stationary radiological monitoring stations on the West coast. In the event of a confirmed radiological release with a potential to impact the U.S., EPA is the Federal agency responsible for radiological monitoring. DOE would be responsible for aerial monitoring, should there be a confirmed radiological release.

Q. What are the health effects of radiation exposure?

A. The risks from radiation always depends on the amount of radiation in the atmosphere, the distance from the radiation source, and whether there is any shielding between the source and a person.

Radiation can be dangerous if the dose of radiation exceeds a certain level. If a nuclear power plant is damaged, health effects are most often seen among the first responders and nuclear power plant workers. This is because they are working in the accident area and they are more likely be exposed to the high levels of radiation that must be present to cause immediate effects. Some of the immediate effects show up as skin redness, hair loss, and burns.

In a nuclear power plant accident, the general population is not likely to be exposed to enough radiation to cause these effects. The United States’ distance from Japan reduces our risk of exposure to the radiation that has been released as a result of this accident.

Q. What are the long-term effects from radiation exposure?

A. Exposure to high levels radiation could increase the risk of cancer. For instance, among the atomic bomb survivors after World War II, the risk of leukemia increased a few years after radiation exposure. The risks of other cancers increased after more than 10 years following the exposure to high amounts of radiation.

Q. Is it true that we are all exposed to radiation daily?

A. Yes. It is important to understand that people are exposed to natural radiation on a daily basis. The radiation comes from the sun, from natural materials found in the ground, water and air, from our televisions, cell phones and computers, and from every structure around us. Levels of exposure to natural radiation also depend on the local geology and elevation.

People can also be exposed to radiation from chemotherapy or medical equipment such as X-ray machines.

Q. How does radiation become a health hazard during a nuclear power plant accident?

A. If radiation is released from a nuclear power plant during an accident, the radioactive particles might become airborne. Those particles that drift in the atmosphere could settle on water and land. If the particles come in contact with people, there is a possibility of radiation contamination both internal (breathing and eating) and external.

It is important to monitor the instructions from the authorities to determine if there is a risk. You may be advised to stay indoors for a period of time. If there has been external contamination, such as radioactive particles falling on the skin, you may be advised to take a shower.

Q. Who is at highest risk of exposure in the Japanese nuclear power plant accident?

A. Nuclear power plant workers may be exposed to higher radiation doses due to their professional activities and direct exposure to radioactive materials inside the power plant.

Q. What do public health agencies do in an emergency involving radiation?

A. Most of the public health activities will occur at or near the site of the emergency. In the case of a nuclear power accident, protective actions may be implemented within an area around the site. Those could include staying indoors, and in more extreme cases, evacuation.

The public health impacts depend on the amount of radioactivity released in the atmosphere and the prevailing weather conditions such as wind and rain. It may be helpful to evacuate people within a certain distance of the nuclear power plant; to provide shelter in order to reduce exposure; and to provide potassium iodide pills, commonly called KI, for people to take to reduce the risk of certain cancers. These steps are determined by medical authorities after consultation with radiation experts.

If warranted, steps such as restricting food use of vegetables and dairy products produced in the area of the power plant can help reduce exposure.

 Q. I feel burdened by everything that is happening in Japan and its effects on us here. I want to stay informed but I don't want to get exhausted by all the news. How do I find a balance?


A. While staying informed, it is important to not allow yourself to get overwhelmed with all of the available information. You may want to limit your watching coverage of the unfolding events in Japan to one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening.