Why I’m Not Afraid Of Fukushima

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whyimnotafraidoffukushima

A guest post by Jeremiah, loving husband of the head bloggist at LLPH.

I’m not afraid of Fukushima.

While the thought of mutation-inducing, poisonous “radiation” from the stricken nuclear plant floating in our atmosphere and in our oceans where it is gobbled up by the fish we eat is enough to scare the daylights out of a lot of people–I can barely muster a yawn at the same image.  You may be right, I may be crazy, but let me tell you why I just might be the lunatic you’re looking for.

Once upon a time I was a nuclear worker for the U.S. Navy, and during my time I climbed on a nuclear reactor, slept between nuclear warheads, and drank primary coolant from said reactor.

During my time, I gained a vast appreciation and respect for nuclear power–its benefits and risks.  That insight has allowed me to separate truth from hysteria when it comes to all things radioactive.  Now you may be thinking “aww, you were just brainwashed by the powers that be.”  I’ve considered it at length.  Were my instruction limited to classroom training, I might be more skeptical of myself, but here’s the thing: there’s nothing quite like being able to hold a radiac (a radiation detector) in your hand and verify what you’ve been taught.  Using the same sort of detection equipment you can buy online, I have monitored all sorts of radioactive environments.  And I never had to take for granted what I had been told.  After all, in this modern age of the internet, I have at my fingertips all the dose standards of every other government, corporation, and university in the world.  Consequently, the dose limits imposed by the navy are some of the strictest I’ve seen.

1b_3
The AN/PDQ-1, my radiac of choice.

A Primer

Before getting into specifics, we have to deal with a few things up front.  Namely, we have to make sure we’re all speaking the same language.  Knowing the right terms is crucial.  Most of the studying I have done for this post has been learning different units of measure and doing unit conversions, because the U.S. military has a habit of using antiquated systems of measure.  I had to catch myself up on the science and industry standards of measurement.  Likewise, you will have to do some recalibration of your terminology before we can continue any further.

Firstly:

radiation does not equal contamination.  It drives me crazy when I hear people talking about radiation, when what they really mean is contamination.  Radiation consists of the particles emitted by radioactive materials when they decay from one atomic form to another.  Contamination is the radioactive material itself.  When Cs-137 (a common fission byproduct) is detected in fish, the creature hasn’t ingested radiation, it’s ingested contamination.  Also, radiation from Fukushima isn’t coming to America, but contamination is.  Of course, contamination emits radiation, so differentiating may seem academic to you, but the distinction is important, I promise.

Secondly:

all radiation is not created equal.  You may be familiar with the four types of radiation: alpha, beta, gamma, and neutron (there are others, but these are the types most commonly called “radiation”).  Every wannabe rad-worker has been presented the problem: you have four radioactive cookies, an alpha, a beta, a gamma and a neutron.  You may eat one, throw one away, put one in your pocket, and hold one in your hand.  What do you do with each?  The answer: You hold the alpha cookie in your hand because alpha radiation is blocked by your skin.  You put the beta in your pocket, because beta particles are blocked by clothing.  You throw the neutron away because neutron radiation will really mess you up, and you eat the gamma because gamma is the least dangerous and will penetrate your whole body no matter where it is.  As neutron radiation is only produced by active nuclear reactions, and not by any radioactive material, we will limit our discussion to the alpha, beta, and gamma cookies.

Thirdly:

all radiation does not do equal damage.  Fortunately, those who invented the methods of measuring radiation thought of that.  They invented a handy unit called a Sievert (Sv).  (In the navy we used REM.)  You can think of a Sv as the amount of damage ionizing radiation will do to human tissue, so that no matter what type of radiation you are discussing, 1 Sv will do the same amount of damage to you.  The amount of radiation your body absorbs is called “dose”.  There is another unit that will be pertinent to our discussion called a Becquerel (Bq).  (In my navy days we talked about Curies.)  A Bq is a measurement of contamination not radiation.  It is a physical quantity of radioactive material, weighted for the intensity of the radiation emitted by that material (it’s actually a little more complex than that, but this will work for our discussion).

For perspective, a typical banana contains about 15 Bq of radioactive potassium.  Brazil nuts can be as much as twice as radioactive per equivalent mass.

Fourthly:

it matters how you receive a dose.  A dose of radiation of 4 Sv absorbed all at once will likely kill you, but 4 Sv received over the course of your lifetime would hardly be noticed.

Uranium Is Scary!  Yes It Is.  But So Are Rope Swings!

Many people in the healthy living community are very concerned about the possible health consequences of the Fukushima disaster.  Some are concerned out of pure motivation, while others have their own agenda (buy my supplements!).  It is up to the responsible individual to sort out what is truly worrisome versus what is really not that big a deal.  Nuclear power is a particularly scary bogeyman because people are generally pretty ignorant about it, plus between nuclear accidents and atomic bombs, the Nuclear Age has wrought a fair amount of suffering and death upon the world.

godzilla
Godzilla rises from the sea, summoned by the evil masterminds at TEPCO.

But all is not lost.  For all of the dangers and destruction Uranium and its cousins have introduced, I have long advocated for it as a wonderful stopgap method of power generation to get us from burning coal and damming rivers to the next breakthrough (sorry, folks, windmills aren’t it).  Obviously, the 1950s vision of a world with nuclear planes, trains, and automobiles was a bit far-fetched.  But that doesn’t mean nuclear fission should be abandoned altogether.

The very first thing you learn as a rad-worker is that radiation is all about risk.  The stochastic effects (i.e., the ones that don’t hurt you right away) of radioactive exposure are such that any exposure, however slight, will increase your risk of long term health consequence (i.e., cancer), but that doesn’t have to be frightening.  You have to understand the magnitude of risk involved.  It is usually very slight.  On top of that, you have to be aware of how much radiation people are exposed to by seemingly innocuous environmental and artificial sources.  A good example: I actually received less radiation when I was out to sea working on a nuclear reactor and sleeping between nuclear warheads than I did when I was in port soaking up the sun, flying home on leave, and getting my medical checkups.

I won’t insult you by telling you there is nothing to worry about when it comes to nuclear power, but I will tell you it doesn’t have to be as scary as it’s made out to be.  Let’s start by debunking some nuclear myths designed to scare people, a few of which you may have heard regarding Fukushima.

  1. “Radiation at the beach could double!”  

    The very claim is suspect, but nevertheless, anything multiplied by zero is still zero.  If you put one grain of salt into a swimming pool is it now saltwater?  What about if you put two grains of salt in?  No?  But you doubled the amount of salt!  Whereas most people think in linear terms, atomic physics is a logarithmic world where sometimes even increases of 1,000% are small.

  2. “Bears in Alaska have been spotted with sores and missing patches of fur.” 

    This one just doesn’t pass the common sense test.  If radioactive material from Fukushima is having this effect on bears in Alaska, how is anything in Japan still alive? Indeed contamination levels are higher in Alaska now than they once were, but the data is often misinterpreted and spuriously connected to every known ailment.

  3. “Nuclear waste stays radioactive for millions of years.”  

    Not true.  Besides it’s answering the wrong question.  The most concerning radiation for people is beta, which is blocked by clothing and most skin, so it’s only really harmful if the beta-emitting contaminant is ingested.  And if it is ingested, the half-life of the material isn’t important–how long it takes your body to eliminate it is.  A particular isotope of Cesium called Cs-137 (a common fission byproduct) has a half-life of about 30 years, but if you eat it, it is eliminated by your body in about a year.  That sounds like a long time, but consider the amounts we’re talking about–they are very small indeed.

  4. “Fukushima is worse than Chernobyl.”  

    The only rationale I can think of for the people who made this one up is that Chernobyl is a distant memory–27 years later the average person can’t look around and see how it has changed their life in any appreciable way–and they don’t want you thinking that 27 years from now you’ll feel the same way about Fukushima.  It is hard to understate what a completely bungled, monumentally disastrous situation Chernobyl was.  A cursory understanding of nuclear power will tell you that the RBMK-1000 reactor was one of the most horridly designed enterprises ever to come to fruition.  Whereas Fukushima was the result of sturdy–but antiquated–equipment exposed to a once-in-a-lifetime natural disaster, Chernobyl was the result of rank incompetence, central planning, and downright stupidity.  Chernobyl scoffs at Fukushima.  In contrast to the relatively tame hydrogen explosions suffered at Fukushima, Chernobyl burst open like an overcooked container of Jiffy Pop, spewing nuclear fuel and radioactive graphite not only all over the surrounding area, but dozens of miles into the air too.  Despite the needless carnage of Chernobyl, the results are surprisingly mild.  Fewer than 100 people died as a direct result of the disaster.  Of the 110,000 or so people involved with the cleanup, about 0.1% have developed Leukemia–not all of which can be blamed on radiation.  And contrary to some fables, the exclusion zone around Chernobyl has become a lush wildlife preserve, teeming with all sorts of life, but devoid of any glowing lizards or three-eyed toads.

    Germany  Russia Hannover Fair
    In Mother Russia, nuclear disaster decontaminates you!
  5. “Any increase in radiation is enough to be worried about.”

    On its face, this sounds reasonable.  But consider this, if you live in an area that normally gets 150 days of sunshine a year (I live in Portland, so even that much sun seems far-fetched) would you be concerned about the increased risk of skin cancer if there were 151 sunny days this year?

  6. “Nuclear reactors are dangerous to the environment even if they don’t suffer an accident.”  

    You will actually detect higher radiation outside a coal plant than outside a nuclear plant.

Radiation_Dose_Chart_by_Xkcd

 

What I Am Not Saying.

I don’t want to be misunderstood.  I am not telling you that nuclear accidents are non-issues.  There are risks to consider.  If you live 50 miles away from Fukushima, you might consider dusting off your passport and moving away for a while.  If you eat a few thousand pounds of Pacific tuna every year, you should probably cut back, for more reasons than contamination!  I don’t recommend anyone do the stupid things I did when I worked with nuclear power.  I was young and invincible.  Please, be smart, but not gullible.

 What I Am Saying.

The human body is a marvelous creation, able to deal with so much of what is thrown at it.  If you take care of yourself, eat right, and exercise, you likely have nothing to worry about from Fukushima.  To provide a bit of context,  Mark Jacobsen, a very vocal anti-nuclear advocate and professor at Stanford University, created a computer algorithm to predict the effects of Fukushima.  He estimated that eventually 130 people would die as a result of the disaster, with the vast majority of those occurring in Japan. His method has received some criticism, but it is worthy of consideration.  Suppose he was wrong by a factor of 10–meaning 1,300 will actually die.  Now suppose instead of 99%, only 75% of those deaths occur in Japan, and all the rest happen on the West Coast of the U.S.  That would mean those on the West Coast now have an increased risk of death of .00058%.  See why I’m not too concerned?

Just in case you’re still not convinced, here are some activities that pose more danger to you than Fukushima.

1. Worrying about Fukushima.  

The health effects of stress can shorten your life!

2. Buying expensive supplements to protect you from Fukushima radiation.

Worry caused by financial instability is some of the most unhealthy kind of stress.

3. Driving.  

Think I’m kidding?  Driving is the number one killer of people ages 1-34 in the U.S.

4. Living in the country.  

According to countyhealthrankings.org, your lifespan can be as much as two years shorter if you live in a rural area instead of the city.  Flee from God’s beautiful nature or face an early death!

5. Eating.  

Choking presents a much more realistic threat to you than Fukushima.

In conclusion, the world is dangerous.  By no means is it an ideal place to live.  That being said, there are far greater risks out there to worry about than Fukushima.  I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.

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