There’s an eerie video up on YouTube, shot by a Japanese journalist who ventured into the evacuation zone surrounding the Fukushima nuclear power plant, armed with a camera and a radiation meter. The video looks like b-roll footage from a low-budget zombie movie, with roving bands of stray dogs and a soundtrack of the radiation meter’s increasingly frantic beeping.
Shortly after the earthquake that damaged the plant, the Japanese government evacuated residents from a more than 1,000 square mile zone. Last week, they raised the severity level of the crisis at Fukushima to a 7 out of 7, making it the worst nuclear disaster since the complete meltdown of the reactor at Chernobyl, in 1986. In its wake, worldwide fear of nuclear power spiked. The German government shut down seven of its 17 nuclear reactors, and plans to eliminate nuclear power by 2020. In the U.S., a Fox News Poll conducted in early April found that 83 percent of respondents thought a similar disaster could happen to an American nuclear plant.
People fear radiation for good reason. All ionizing radiation passes unimpeded through cells of the body, mutating or destroying DNA along the way. The danger level depends on the dose and the length of exposure. We’re exposed to small amounts of radiation all the time — from cosmic rays to the normal radioactive decay of soil, rocks and building materials. Even the granite in the U.S. Capitol Building emits low levels of radiation. These levels are harmless, but a high dose can kill, and prolonged or repeated moderate exposure can lead to cancer.