Surgeon general to west coast: Hey, might be worth stocking up on iodide; Update: All Japanese workers evacuated after radiation levels rise

Alternate headline: “Surgeon general freaks out entire western half of the country.”

State and county officials spent much of Tuesday trying to keep people calm by saying that getting the pills wasn’t necessary, but then the United States surgeon general supported the idea as a worthy “precaution.”

U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin is in the Bay Area touring a peninsula hospital. NBC Bay Area reporter Damian Trujillo asked her about the run on tablets and Dr. Benjamin said although she wasn’t aware of people stocking up, she did not think that would be an overreaction. She said it was right to be prepared…

Santa Clara County’s public health officer Dr. Martin Fenstersheib told the Mercury News he also does not recommend getting the tablets, adding some people can be severely allergic to the iodine.

Much as there was with Cipro after the anthrax attacks in 2001, there’s now a full-fledged run on iodide tablets across the U.S. and online. One key difference, though: Anthrax was, at least, a genuine domestic problem for a few weeks. Energy secretary Steven Chu said at a hearing today that there’s “essentially no concern” about health risks to the west coast given how heavily dispersed any radioactive concentrations would be by the time they floated over from Japan. So confident is the White House about this, in fact, that The One himself insisted tonight on camera that both the west coast and Hawaii are in the clear. Think about that. Nowadays, the only topics about which he’s willing to offer a firm opinion are bullying (he’s against it) and the NCAA tournament (he’s in favor). If he’s willing to say out loud that there’ll be no death cloud descending upon Los Angeles, take it to the bank.

As I write this, the latest news from Japan is that reactor number four is once again on fire. As long as it burns, presumably two things are happening. The containment vessel is heating up and therefore turning sea water into steam even more rapidly than before, raising pressure inside the vessel. And, possibly, the spent fuel rods on the roof are in greater danger of boiling over and melting down, triggering a much greater release of radiation. Sounds like the latter, at least, hasn’t happened, as the LA Times claims radiation levels declined overnight after soaring earlier.

As for the 50 workers still on the scene still trying to shut Pandora’s box, it’s as bad as you think.

Update: The worst-case scenario might finally be upon us. News broke at around 10 p.m. ET of new smoke coming from Japan’s nuke plant. A Japanese official called a press briefing a few minutes and apparently said that they think it’s coming from … the containment vessel at reactor number three. If the vessel’s been breached then radiation levels should start rising — and sure enough:

Mr. Edano said radiation readings started rising rapidly Wednesday morning outside the front gate of the Fukushima Daiichi plant. “All the workers there have suspended their operations. We have urged them to evacuate, and they have,” he said, according to a translation by NHK television.

To make a terrible situation even worse, reactor number three is the one that uses “MOX” nuclear fuel, which includes reprocessed plutonium. According to a Times story published last night, “Any radioactive plume from that fuel would be more dangerous than ordinary nuclear fuel, experts say, because inhaling plutonium even in very small quantities is considered lethal.”

Update: A reporter for the Times says that a “core” group of workers is still at the plant. Read this story to understand what they’re facing right now.

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