The unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan has sparked renewed concern in San Luis Obispo County about exposure to radiation.
County public health and emergency services officials are handling multiple public inquiries about whether a radioactive plume could drift across the Pacific Ocean from Japan and reach the West Coast, as well as inquiries about how to obtain the radiation-blocking drug potassium iodide.
Dr. Penny Borenstein, county health officer, told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that Japan’s nuclear emergency does not present a danger to California. However, state and federal officials continue to monitor the situation.
Japan is too far away for harmful amounts of radiation to reach California, said Jordon Scott, a spokesman for the California Emergency Management Agency in Sacramento. The radiation would be widely dispersed or removed from the atmosphere by storms by the time it blew across the Pacific Ocean.
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“Being 5,000 miles away, you can’t expect that much of anything would make it this far,” he said. “There’s just way too much ocean to cover to get over here.”
Forecasters are predicting that a storm will arrive along the Central Coast this weekend, bringing moderate rainfall.
Potassium iodide pills
County health officials are also fielding many public inquiries about where to obtain potassium iodide pills. These pills are intended to be taken in the event of a major radiation leak from Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
The thyroid gland is particularly susceptible to radiation because it readily absorbs radioactive iodide, a common element in a radiation leak. If taken immediately before exposure to radiation, potassium iodide can saturate the thyroid and prevent absorption of radioactive iodide.
County residents are advised to have potassium iodide on hand but are not advised to take it in response to the nuclear emergency in Japan, said Ron Alsop, county emergency services manager.
“Any release of radiation from nuclear power plants in other regions cannot emit radiation levels that would necessitate the ingestion of potassium iodide by residents of San Luis Obispo County,” he said.
Although potassium iodide can help protect the thyroid gland, it is not an all-purpose anti-radiation pill. It is considered a supplement either to evacuating or sheltering in place in the event of a major local radiation leak.
Shelters set up
Sheltering in place consists of staying indoors with all windows and doors closed and ventilation systems turned off. County health officials would advise the public when it is appropriate to take the pills and whether to evacuate or stay in place.
Areas affected by a radiation leak at Diablo Canyon would be determined by the prevailing winds. According to local weather data, about 60 percent of the time winds blow from the northwest, so Avila Beach and the Five Cities area are most likely to be affected. Twenty-three percent of the time winds blow from the southeast, toward the North Coast; 12 percent of the time winds blow from the northeast toward the sea.
If told to evacuate, people are advised to go to the home of friends or relatives outside the area. If that is not possible, people should go to public congregation centers at the Santa Maria Fairpark or Camp Roberts.
Schools also have designated evacuation centers at the Paso Robles Event Center and Nipomo High School. Before Nipomo High School opened, the evacuation center was in Santa Maria.
Nipomo High School was selected because it is in the county but far enough outside “protective action zones” that would be most affected by a radiation leak at Diablo Canyon.
People who live or work in the vicinity of Diablo Canyon can obtain potassium iodide pills free of charge by downloading a voucher from the county health services website at www.slocounty.ca.gov/ health/kiinfo.htm.
The voucher can then be used to obtain the potassium iodide from five county locations.
People eligible to receive the free pills must live or work in a Diablo Canyon emergency planning zone, an area from Cayucos in the north to the Nipomo Mesa in the south and as far inland as San Luis Obispo.