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Meltdown: What is Cesium-137?

March 13, 2011

NY Times Reports: Japan Scrambles to Avert Meltdown

Even before the explosion on Saturday, officials said they had detected radioactive cesium, which is created when uranium fuel is split, an indication that some of the nuclear fuel in the reactor was already damaged.

How much damage the fuel suffered remained uncertain, though safety officials insisted repeatedly through the day that radiation leaks outside the plant remained small and did not pose a major health risk.

However, they also told the International Atomic Energy Agency that they were making preparations to distribute iodine, which helps protect the thyroid gland from radiation exposure, to people living near the Daiichi plant and a second nuclear plant that suffered damage in the quake, Daini, about 10 miles away.

What is Cesium-137?
Cesium-137 and strontium-90 are the most dangerous radioisotopes to the environment in terms of their long-term effects. Their intermediate half-lives of about 30 years suggests that they are not only highly radioactive but that they have a long enough half life to be around for hundreds of years. Iodine-131 may give a higher initial dose, but its short halflife of 8 days ensures that it will soon be gone. Besides its persistence and high activity, cesium-137 has the further insidious property of being mistaken for potassium by living organisms and taken up as part of the fluid electrolytes. This means that it is passed on up the food chain and reconcentrated from the environment by that process.

Source: Hyperphysics

More detailed information, go to Wikipedia.

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