MEDINA — There are four operating nuclear power reactors on both sides of the border which can have an impact on the area, should a radioactive fallout event occur.
With aging nuclear power plants with low levels of security for their uranium waste — not to mention the atomic waste from the Manhattan Project buried in Niagara County — Western New York is very open to nuclear vulnerabilities.
Not only that, but according to Linda Redfield Shakoor, of the World Life Institute, there will be 150 trucks carrying nuclear waste across the Peace Bridge. It will be passing through the area as it heads south.
“The Canadians said they wouldn’t know what to do if an accident occurred,” she said.
While there are plans for what to do in cases of nuclear terrorism such as dirty bombs, in a survey taken of 269 nurses, EMS, firefighters, public health managers, local environmental protection agencies, doctors and hospitals, only 16 percent of respondents had radiation emergency training. Not only that, but the radiation training which exists is optional and only 1 percent take advantage of it.
On Monday night, a lecture was held at Genesee Community College for the Responding to Emergencies class, a general-education health class taught on the Medina campus. Titled “Preparedness for a Radiation Emergency in Western New York,” the lecture covered the dangers of radiation and how to protect against them.
Nuclear radiation danger comes in contamination and exposure. The reason nuclear radiation is so dangerous is because it chases electrons out of an atom. This breaks the molecules into pieces. When radiation interacts with biological systems, it breaks the bonds that hold the molecule structures together. Essentially on a molecular level, the living creature is being taken apart.
Contamination can be either external or internal and the danger comes from alpha and beta rays. Alpha rays can’t pass through paper or the dead outer layer of our skin. Beta rays can’t pass through clothes, though if they come into contact with our skin, they leave a burn. To protect the body from contamination, cover up the skin and wear something over the mouth — a N95 mask is recommended and can be bought on Amazon — to keep radiation particles from being swallowed or inhaled. Radiation can also enter the body via open wounds. It is possible to create make-shift protective outfits out of garbage bags and plastic bags, the latter of which can be worn over the shoes.
External contamination can only be identified with radiation detection equipment — there is no way to know otherwise. If an area is contaminated, people should go through decontamination. This includes taking off the outer layer of clothes and folding them inside-out to keep the radiation contained. Wash your body with soap and water — do not use conditioner, nor scrub the skin so hard that open wounds occur. Keep injuries covered and keep contaminated clothes in a separate area away from yourself and others.
The third type of radiation is gamma rays, which are referred to as exposure. They are on the high end of the electromagnetic spectrum. These rays can go right through anything and typical protective suits will not safeguard the body from the exposure. These are the most hazardous to our health and the most difficult to protect against. They aren’t made of matter and are packets of pure energy which travel at the speed of light and chase electrons out of the atom. This dissolves the structure of the body as the human body is a vast aggregation of molecules. Exposure can only be detected as well with radiation detection equipment.
“When an environment is contaminated with radiation, you must assume all three (alpha, beta and gamma rays) are happening — that there is contamination and exposure,” said Paul Zimmerman, from the World Life Institute.
Time, distance and access to shelter are the only ways to keep safe during a nuclear radiation fallout event. While radioactivity decays quickly, people shouldn’t spend more time outside than necessary and get as far away from the area as possible. They should stay in a shelter for about 48 hours, which is when about 90 percent of the radiation will have decayed. The closer they are to the epicenter of the event, the longer this will take.
While shelters such as homes will protect people from contamination, they will not protect them from exposure — the only way to do so is with three feet of earth and two feet of concrete. When hiding in a basement, dirt should be built up to cover the basement walls and windows, and cinder blocks and sandbags filled with dirt can provide protection on the side from the gamma rays. In order to provide protection from the ceiling, it is suggested to lay down a plastic tarp above the area on the floor above where the shelter will be and pile dirt on top, making sure to brace the basement ceiling.