The following is a quick essay on what I believe to be technical misconceptions about radiation in the media.
First off, I understand people don’t have the patience to read more than a page of anything on the web. My main purpose here is to have something on here that I can be at peace with, for people to point to. That said, please read on, if you’re so inclined:
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People have sent me links to articles (both major and personal) stating that the nuclear disaster in Fukushima will be contained and shouldn’t be of any concern to the average citizen. Most seem to dismiss the potential effects of the intentional & unintentional leaks by blaming the media for sensationalism. Or are they?
For a lack of a better metaphor, just because an actor is having a public meltdown and the papers are right there to capitalize on it to sell more copies, it doesn’t mean that s/he isn’t.
While we all hope and pray the situation is not headed towards a Chernobyl-scale eruption, to assume the concerns are unfounded couldn’t be further from the truth. These articles do an excellent job explaining the basics of how a nuclear reactor works and its design to prevent a meltdown, but they all commonly seem to completely ignore these glaring points:
1. You should never equate the products of nuclear fission with background radiation, and other forms such as X-Rays.
The reason being, atomic fission splits Uranium (will write elements in caps) into dozens of combination of atoms, all of them highly radioactive. These radioactive isotopes do NOT exist in nature, because fission doesn’t happen on earth under normal circumstances, unless the Uranium is enriched by humans. (Fission was discovered in 1938, which lead to the atomic bomb and the same principles were applied to heating water, albeit at a much lower concentration.)
List of fission products: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fission_product_yield
(also, though I regret I haven’t done an english translation, I did post a Japanese report in 2006,
complete with diagrams here: www.e22.com/atom)
Some radioactive elements when ingested, will be mistaken as nutrients and stay in your body (since atoms in the same column of the periodic table have similar properties). Once stored in your body, they continue to affect the neighboring cells which could lead to uncontrolled genetic mutation = cancer. Example: Strontium acts like Calcium, Cesium acts like Potassium.
Measured by half-life, some dissipate after days, some stay on for years. Radioactivity is a term for high-energy electromagnetic waves, and sometimes they happened to be grouped with X-rays because of its ionizing nature. Ionizing roughly means that it is strong enough to break bonds of common molecules.
Therefore, just measuring the amount of radiation in arbitrary units and making judgements is the same thing as measuring the weight and ignoring the content. Counters are useful in detecting the presence of radioactivity, but what we really need to be aware of is what might be present, and where they originated.
2. Fission products are NOT the same as what happens when uranium decays. Uranium decays naturally over millions of years, through several steps and eventually settles into a stable form of Lead. Decaying does not stop, but fission will without the proper environment. If we are detecting any fission products, it is safe to assume that others in the dirty laundry basket are present as well.
3. The health effects of radiation exposure may depend on the person and age, but there is really NO safe limit for internal radiation, even at low-levels. Infants and fetuses are highly susceptible, because they are still developing critical organs and functions. Saying the opposite is quite irresponsible if you understand the consequences.
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In the case of the reactors in Japan, if the housings popped to release the pressure, and we’re also detecting traces of fission products, there could have been a compromise in the integrity of the reactor itself. We already know for certain there was nearly twice the maximum amount of pressure that it was designed for.
I don’t think it’s overreacting to err on the safe side. The main dividing issue is that undermining the effects of radiation is the main tactic used for decades by the proponents of the nuclear industry. If you think I sound I’m exaggerating, I recommend reading a study like this:
CHERNOBYL: 20 YEARS ON by ECCR (summary)
I have personally interviewed many scientists and engineers who have worked inside plants. They all had to leave in order to expose the truth with great conscience. Although the technology has improved, the principles have remained the same since its inception. We really need to realize that most “fears” regarding nuclear energy is indeed very true. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be having such a big discussion in 2011.
Why do you think we haven’t had any new plants built in the US since Three Mile Island accident of 1979? Currently around 100, at one point the US government was aiming for 1000 nuclear power plants. The bottom line is nuclear plants are never safe nor economically viable, unless you’re heavily invested in Uranium.
Which side you want be on, is totally up to you.
Let’s keep working for the truth, for the people, for each other.