On Tuesday, Dr. Robert Gale ’66 conducted a brief WEOS radio interview with Professor of Economics Tom Drennen and his research student Joel Andruski ’11 concerning the nuclear power plant accidents in Japan.
Gale has aided in several international nuclear incidents including coordinating all medical relief efforts for victims of Chernobyl in 1986, Goiania, Brazil in 1987 and Armenia in 1988. In 1999, he helped treat victims of the nuclear accident near Tokyo. Gale is an expert in radiation biology and has published more than 800 scientific articles and more than 20 books, mostly on leukemia, transplantation, cancer immunology and radiation, including biological effects and accident response.
Drennen and Gale discussed the two “fundamental differences” between Chernobyl and Fukushima, which Gale noted are the construction of the reactors themselves and the issue of containment. Chernobyl’s reactors were not kept in containment buildings; the U.S. and West have first a containment vessel, then a containment building.
Gale noted Japan is “slowly moving toward a situation that is less comfortable for people like me because one or more of the containment vessels may have been breached. That is, we may be looking at a situation where …one of the containment vessels is no longer intact and therefore the radionuclides in its core can be released to the atmosphere, but equally important, we have fuel rods that have been spent are sitting in ponds that have no containment around them…because of the lack of the pumps, they are being exposed to the atmosphere. So we have in some sense, the two situations morphing together.”
Andruski questioned Gale about the exclusion zone in Japan, in which anyone within 20 to 30 kilometers of the site of the reactors was being asked to stay indoors and make their buildings airtight. Gale said, “If anything, they’re probably overly conservative,” noting the ambient levels of radiation are not currently very high, although that could change.
When asked about the plant workers who stayed behind to continue to work on the reactors, he noted the workers who stayed with the reactors in Chernobyl did not have dosimeters with them to record the amount of radiation they were receiving. In Japan, however, “All of the workers carry dosimeters so we can prevent people from being overexposed, or intervene as appropriate because we have the information from those. In Chernobyl, we had to use biological indicators to guesstimate the dose of radiation workers were receiving.”
Gale also noted he and his medical colleagues are concerned that by some accidental event, the workers could be exposed to a high enough dose of radiation requiring medical intervention. “So my colleagues and I are trying to be prepared for that case.”
When Drennen asked if Gale would be called to Japan, he said it “looks increasingly like I’m going to be headed to Japan momentarily.”
The three also discussed the future of nuclear energy policy, and whether or not this crisis is likely to impact it, as well as potential impact of radiation on oceanic food sources, should the particulate matter be pushed into the sea at some point.
The interview is linked here.
Gale earned a B.A. in biology and chemistry, with Honors, from Hobart College, and his M.D. degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo. His postgraduate medical training (internal medicine, hematology and oncology) was at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Gale received a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from UCLA following doctoral work focusing on cancer immunology (with John Fahey). His postdoctoral studies at UCLA were funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Leukemia Society of America, where he was the Bogart Fellow and Scholar.