Radiation and the Pacific Jet Stream

Will radiation released from Japan’s damaged nuclear plants affect people living in the United States, in Hawaii or on the West Coast? I asked that question of Dr. Ivan Oelrich, a retired nuclear physicist who worked during the last decade with the Federation of American Scientists, toured Japanese reactor sites last August. In an interview this morning he said that detectable radiation around the world may rise, but not “significantly.” When the North Koreans set off a nuclear device, for example, radiation showed up at the monitoring station at Yellowknife, Canada–the spot where radiation levels from Japan probably will be first detected on the mainland–but the amounts remained small.

U.S. and international nuclear regulatory agencies have assured Americans that they will not be affected by the current levels of radiation released in Japan. People along the West Coast might well be apprehensive about the effects of a catastrophic radiation release, however, due to the existence of powerful air current across the Pacific. The question has brought to light one little-noticed historical example of how the Pacific jet stream carried a Japanese attack on the U.S. during World War II.  That incident is described in Wikipedia:

Between November 1944 and April 1945, the Japanese Navy launched over 9,000 fire balloons toward North America. Carried by the recently-discovered Pacific jet stream, they were to sail over the Pacific Ocean and land in North America, where the Japanese hoped they would start forest fires and cause other damage. About three hundred were reported as reaching North America, but little damage was caused. Six people (five children and a woman) became the only deaths due to enemy action to occur on mainland America during World War II…Recently released reports by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian military indicate that fire balloons reached as far inland as Saskatchewan.

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