Could radiation from Japan reach the U.S.?

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PHOENIX -- Could nuclear radiation from Japan's nuclear crisis reach North America? Yes, although at this point it looks like there is little danger to residents.

Now that there has been a significant release of radiation in Japan, meteorologists will be watching the weather to track that radiation.

Because Japan is in the mid-latitudes, its weather pattern is dominated by the westerlies, but the winds vary at the surface.

On Tuesday, a storm system was bringing not only rain and some snow to earthquake and tsunami survivors in Japan, but also onshore winds. That keeps the radiation from moving away from the Japanese coastline.

Winds are forecast to later turn offshore, and if the radiation is sent high enough into the atmosphere, it could be carried east and northeast across the Pacific and towards North America.

It would take about a week for the jet stream to move it toward Alaska, the Pacific Northwest or California.

It is likely, however, that the radiation would not only stay in the upper levels of the atmosphere, but also be highly diluted after traveling that far.

After the Chernobyl accident in 1986, radiation spread over parts of Europe and Asia, with serious radiation about 900 miles from the accident. The Pacific Northwest is more than 4,000 miles from Japan.

While radiation sickness here in the U.S. is unlikely, some pharmacists in Seattle say they can't keep potassium iodide tablets on their shelves. The pill is used to prevent radiation from gathering in the thyroid gland. Japanese officials are distributing the pills to people evacuated from the areas around the damaged power plants, but U.S. officials say the pills are not necessary in the U.S.