Radiation in Perspective

**Note: I really dislike excusing myself, but it really has been a busy time lately. Postgraduate life is tough, but I am really enjoying it! So I hope you will be kind and indulge me while I study.

Part of my studies is an assessed blog that features only on the university’s intranet; but we have recently been given the nod that we can publish our material on our own blogs too! So, here goes… **

Straight after the first reports of potential problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plan in Japan, following the tsunami and earthquake, I thought that I would be strict with myself, and not discuss the matter of nuclear power in public. I believe this intro betrays my change of mind.

Nobody will ever say that there is no need to worry about a nuclear power station that may go into meltdown. However, when nuclear plants in Germany are shut down because of recent events in Japan, one cannot help but think that something has been miscommunicated. Especially when when focus ought still remain on relief work (related or not to the power station).

My tuppence… radiation is a fact of life, and nuclear power is one of the safest, cleanest, and most reliable energy sources available to humankind in our in-between-phase linking us from fossil fuels to being powered solely by clean, renewable energy. Radiation – particles behaving as waves – is energy. If they impact on another solid, such as a cell in the human body, they can give their energy to the cell, which in turn will vibrate. A vibrating cell can change, or mutate; this is why overexposure to the Sun, which emits a spectrum of radiation, can cause skin cancer: the vibrating cell has mutated and become a tumour (well, this is the super-vague version of things – see the first comment for the accurate take). Large doses of radiation absorption will lead to external burns and internal radiation poisoning. Nasty. However, whenever the media discusses the risks of nuclear power and radiation, they rarely mention dosage, and how different circumstances results in different levels of risk.

Today, I have voluntarily exposed myself to additional radiation (non-background radiation), by eating a banana. My one banana gave me 0,1 micro-Sievert (Sievert, Sv, is the unit for absorbed radiation) extra radiation. Living within a 50 mile radius of a nuclear power station for one year will see you absorbing less radiation than the lone banana. You may now argue that there are limited numbers of people who live under those circumstances. Living in a stone, brick or concrete house for a year will give you 70 micro-Sv. A fatal dose of radiation poisoning is around two Sv. (That is about 28571 times the yearly amount of radiation absorption if you live in one of said houses.)

I shall cut to the chase. Standing next to a reactor core for ten minutes after an explosion and ensuing meltdown will expose you to 50 Sv, and I shall not even think about the consequences, because they are indeed horrific. Do, however, consider that as soon as Fukushima Daiichi showed signs of danger, the surrounding area was evacuated; nuclear power stations are reinforced many times over with materials such as steel and concrete that will absorb radiation. After all, it took an earthquake and a tsunami to set off this disastrous series of events.

It is difficult to put things into perspective with words only, so please see this info-graphic for a better view; and Japan itself is making the effort with “Nuclear Boy”, to explain the situation to the country’s young people.


3 thoughts on “Radiation in Perspective

  1. ” A vibrating atom can change, or mutate; this is why overexposure to the Sun, which emits a spectrum of radiation, can cause skin cancer: the vibrating atom has multiplied and become a tumour”

    If I may pick you up on that – the vibrating atom doesn’t ‘multiply’ to cause cancer. Radiation damages DNA, and so when the cell undergoes mitosis, the new cell may be mutated. This is actually why the double-helix is so clever; it protects against low level radiation by providing a second copy of all genetic material, so that if the DNA is damaged, it can repair itself.

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