Radiation

This article is aimed at your friends who are still wary of nuclear energy. No judgements shall be passed, no confusion shall be sown through presentation of units and magnitudes without context. When it comes to radiation, my theory is virtually all Australians suffer at least some fear – even many of the ones who have concluded that the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the risks.

If you fear radiation, I want to help. I want to heal your fear. This fear is behind the paranoia about Pacific Ocean contamination, the unscrupulous junk science describing health impacts on the US west coast, even the prolonged evacuation of Fukushima prefecture. This fear contaminates the north of South Australia with far wider effect than the British bomb testing could ever have had. This fear erects a barrier against the challenging wisdom of knowledgable professional as sturdy as any steel-lined concrete. This fear lurks at the fringe of every casual conversation about nuclear power, and can still be flicked like a switch by Australia’s institutional environmental leaders. Not radiation. Not epidemiology, not physics, not evidence. Fear.

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This is a tritium-phosphor key chain. The tritium gas within the sealed plastic will make it glow in the dark for at least a decade. Tritium (half-life 12.3 years) gets into the water in and around the Fukushima plant, and the complex filtration machinery doesn’t get it out again.

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One afternoon I found this on the carpet under where my car keys hang. In my mind, what was my first reaction? Fear. That my keys had fallen and my infant had somehow cracked the plastic casing and released the tritium. It caught me completely by surprise. The scenario is impossible. (This is a shard of venetian blind winder handle and my youngest doesn’t yet have teeth.)

Apparently, these key chains hold 9.7 gigabecquerels of tritium, which would work out to a rough maximum dose of 520 millisieverts per year, all in one hit. The current guideline for adult occupational exposure is 100 millisieverts per year. I don’t claim to be an expert but from what I’ve read this would probably be unhealthy for a small child. Scary? Yes, but well, no, because all reason says there’s no risk of the plastic cracking. Despite these large numbers, doses and units, an emotionless appraisal of the facts tells me it’s more than safe enough.

I also keep button batteries in my house, despite the frankly horrific danger they pose to tiny children. I keep them safely stored and have explained the hazard to my eldest. These days, I expect they’d be found in the vast majority of households.

It was only a few years ago that I watched On The Beach, the single most depressing film ever. This was before I had thoroughly researched radioactivity, and something about it was already off (and it wasn’t the masses of cyclists in the streets of Melbourne). You can probably watch it in low definition if you care to google for it.

This is what I mean when I point the finger at radiophobia as a pillar of Australia’s anti-nuclear social engineering. The characters do a great job of selling the total hopelessness with only months left to live as the airborne fallout from World War III inexhorably insinuates its way from the northern hemisphere into Australia’s air. The film makes it clear that its arrival will mean certain death.

I had a science teacher who sat us down one double lesson and had us watch Trinity and Beyond, which is a documentary that manages to completely avoid moralising about nuclear weapons, and since that’s all its about, its impressive. There were apparently 521 above ground tests before the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and the extent of fallout and contamination has been well-studied. Virtually everyone reading this grew up with this material exisiting in the environment around them, but if you’re younger it has had time to naturally decay (without being replenished, except possibly by Chernobyl in 1986) so there’s less.

Let me be clear that I’m not in favour of nuclear weapons, and certainly not of lax containment at nuclear power facilities. It’s just that humanity co-exists with so much else that’s better at affecting us. Geoff Russell’s comprehensive series explains this brilliantly. When someone points out that coal power stations emit more radioactive material than nuclear stations in normal operation, it doesn’t mean you need to worry about it over the other, more obvious concerns of uncontrolled waste release. We can probably all agree that even the worst plausible radiological release from a power plant would cause immediate and lingering contamination on a scale smaller than a nuclear weapon detonation. Yet, such weapon effects have been scientifically observed for nearly 70 years and simply don’t match that which even today is a favourite assumption of nuclear opponents, Hollywood and the commercial media.

Watch this simulated atmospheric spread of radionuclides from the Fukushima accident. Objectively, it is certainly chilling, and it evokes starkly the message from On The Beach of contamination inexhorably percolating down to the southern hemisphere. The academic presenting this material is certainly concerned by the potential harm. So, what if we balance this with another academic who asserts that the prevalent harmful dose assumptions are wrong? Who do we trust? We could trust the consensus of the relevant international body, but they’re sort of faceless. So what about people with real faces who aren’t afraid to work down at “ground zero”?

Remember, that old film had people swallowing cyanide rather than face the diffuse airborne radionuclides which would eventually reach Melbourne. But three years after the Fukushima accident, men are working every day within line of sight of the plant. The contamination is still a concern for them, but they at least recognise that the worst possible health effects are unlikely to affect them within their remaining lifetimes.

At 3:30 the program asserts that the accident itself forced the evacuation, and I would correct this when I say instead that it was actually government edict. Evacuation was initially sensible of course, but on what basis was it extended for over three years? Radiation levels?

If radiation concerns you then you would know that iodine-131 is the most immediate issue. It was this isotope, consumed in the fresh milk in Ukraine following Chernobyl, that caused a known number of thyroid cancers and some deaths. Iodine-131 has a half-life of 8 days, and the rule of thumb is that after ten half-lives the remaining amount is negligible. By the 2 month mark, iodine in the environment or accumulated in animals wasn’t a concern, and in Japan the authorities were very aware of this.

Caesium-137 is far more persistent. The clearest picture of the risks it poses are from the 1987 Goiânia accident. Many people were exposed to huge amounts of caesium-137 over several days or all at once, including by ingestion. Four died. The acute lethal effects were much like what we’d imagine the characters in On The Beach were dreading. Caesium was released at Fukushima, with some settling in the evcuation zone. But the difference between handling a pure amount of medical caesium and dispersed traces spread over a Japanese prefecture cannot be more stark.

I’ve seen the banana equivalent dose dismissed as a distraction by bloggers and commenters since potassium is an essential element and the ratio of radioactive potassium-40 remains constant. Yet this is precisely the point, as the endogenous potassium-40 is a constant source of radioactivity within human bodies which we simply don’t care about. The massive doses of caesium-137 received by those poor Brazilians were absolutely lethal. The sort of dose one is likely to absorb in Fukushima is instead comparable to the banana equivalent dose, regardless of accumulation or biological half-life. These dose levels have been studied long enough to establish that no ill effects can be expected. Look again at that accident in Goiânia: the majority of victims, who initially lived, are still alive nearly thirty years later.

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Thousands of people were exposed. Shouldn’t they be dead or getting cancer since having handled the exact same persistent isotope that people are worried about after Fukushima? Cs-137 has the same properties whether in Brazil or in Japan – that the latter was in release from reactor core damage is irrelevant! So why are nuclear accidents presented as the sum of all fears?

As for tritium, I think I made my point.

I do not intend to relieve any fear of nuclear war. Definitely fear nuclear war. But if it came to that, the decades of research indicate that fallout from distant detonations will be no more than a minor concern, in proportion to e.g., the disruptions to trade and vital foreign aid to developing countries, to say nothing of the refugee situation, already a modern international crisis.

My own initial, irrational reaction of fear was the cultural legacy of a country that never needed to follow others in considering and adopting nuclear power, of a population whose biases were up for grabs, and were grabbed by those eager to ensure no consideration, let alone adoption, would eventuate. I share this with you because I understand. I hope that now, when energy is increasingly seen to be approaching certain limits, that the rationality of Australians will shrug off enough of this social engineering to hear what the advocates have to say and consider the potential of what modern nuclear power could contribute to the efforts to face these challenges.

perspective

Nuclear energy is a direct replacement for fossil fuelled stationary electricity generation, that can use existing transmission infrastructure and cooling resources. While machinery and electricity is used in mining and processing the relatively small amounts of fuel required, during operation reactors emit no greenhouse gasses. There are examples of reactors being built within five year timeframes; Sweden and France achieved prodigious conversion to low-emmission nuclear capacity in only 15 to 20 years, using 1970s technology. Comprehensive international treaties safeguard against the diversion of facilities towards military intentions. A significant proportion of the resurgent interest in modern nuclear energy is in next generation designs that will use processed conventional spent fuel stockpiles and even weapons-grade materials to generate clean electricity.

I am sorry that we fear radiation, and by direct extension nuclear energy. If there’s anyone who benefits from this fear, it certainly isn’t us. There’s nothing that will heal this fear other than truth, and even then scars will remain.

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