Nuclear and Atomic Radiation Concepts Pictographically Demystified

10 10 2013

Greetings, all.  Today I’m attempting a different, largely pictographic approach to demystifying the concept of “radiation” for the layperson.

Despite the hype, radiation is a natural part of our planet’s, solar system’s, and galaxy’s environment, and one that our biology is equipped to mitigate at ordinary intensities.  It’s all actually surprisingly straightforward.

So, without further ado, here goes – a post in two parts…

PART I – Radiation and Radioactivity Explained in 60 Seconds:

The Atom

This is a generic diagram of the atom, which in various combinations of the same bits and parts is the basic unique building block of all matter in the universe:

Atom_Labels

This somewhat simplified view of an atom is what makes up the classic “atomic” symbol that most of us were exposed to at the very least in high school.

Radioactive Atoms

However, what is almost never explained in school is that each atomic element comes in different versions – slimmer ones and fatter ones.  When an atom’s core gets too large, either naturally or artificially, it starts to radiate bits of itself away in order to “slim down.”  This is called being radio-active.

So, there’s nothing to “radiation” that we all haven’t been introduced to in school.  Radiation is the name given to familiar bits of atoms (electrons, protons, neutrons) or beams of light when they’re being flung away by an element trying desperately to squeeze into last year’s jeans… metaphorically-speaking, of course.

Here is a diagram illustrating this process.  (Relax! – this is the most complicated-looking diagram in this post):

RadioactiveAtom_Radiation_Labels

So, when a radioactive element has radiated enough of itself away and is no longer too large, it is no longer radioactive.  (We say it has “decayed.”)

That’s it!

That’s as complicated as the essential principles of radiation and radioactivity get.  It’s just basic chemistry that isn’t covered in high school, (though in my opinion it should be!).

PART II – Take-Home Radiation Infographics

So, in an effort to help arm you against the rampant misinformation out there, here is a collection of simple diagrams explaining what everyone out there seems to get wrong.  (Feel free to promote and/or distribute with attribution!)

First, what’s the deal with “atomic” energy/radiation versus “nuclear” energy/radiation?  Do they mean the same thing?  Do they not?  Here’s the skinny:

AtomicvsNuclear_labels

That’s all.  “Nuclear” means you’ve zeroed in on an atom’s core, whereas “atomic” means you’re talking about something dealing with whole atoms.  No big mystery there.

Next, here is a simple diagram explaining the three terms used to describe radiation that are commonly misused in the media, presented clearly (click to enlarge):

MisusedTerms_labels

(Armed with this, you should be able to see why saying something like, “The radiation is releasing contamination!” doesn’t make a lick of sense.)

Now, here is a diagram explaining the natural sources of radiation we’re exposed to everyday on planet Earth:

RadiationNaturalSources_labels

And here are the basic principles of radiation safety, all on one, clean diagram (click to enlarge):

RadiationSafetyv2_labels

The End! 

Despite the time and effort spent socially (politically?) promoting an obscured view of this science (or so it seems), there is nothing more mysterious about radiation than what you see here.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions, and remember:  We have nothing to fear but fear itself!

Semper Exploro!





Radiation, Japan, and Irresponsible Reporting: Part IV

29 05 2012

(Credit: Jeremy Gwin)

This post has been lying in wait for quite some time.  I thought it best that I let it simmer and distill for a while… The truth is that I was simply getting too frustrated with the Fukushima coverage to compose a sensible post.  Now, with a little extra time and perspective, please allow me to present Part IV (relative to previous Parts I, II, and III) of my attempt to throw a cup of knowledge onto the raging inferno of misinformation out there relating to “radiation” and the media/cultural fallout (ahem) from the reactor failures in Japan. 

Just how bad is it?  Read on.

Media Blunders

A year ago, just when I thought the tide was turning on the sensationalistic coverage of nuclear reactor incidents in Japan and elsewhere, the media pulled another wave of cheap stunts.  -I had been just about ready to bury the hatchet, and I suddenly realized that it needed sharpening.  Much sharpening.

With (it seems) an ebb-and-flow that correlates to how sensational (or boring) other news is at the time, adding to my deep-seated suspicion that “radiation”-stories are linked to low ratings, the Fukushima coverage swung ’round from simple paranoia and approached raving madness.

Let’s start with this article:  http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/28/us-japan-nuclear-idUSTRE75Q1EV20110628

(Credit: The Coleman Company)

When we get into the guts of the piece, the info finally comes out that the amount of radiologically-impacted water in question included only 15 tons and that it was low level radioactivity that was discovered.  That’s important info!  Nay, the most important info.    “Low level” radioactivity includes Coleman lantern mantles, tritium watch luminescence, and americium in smoke detectors – things you already own, wear, or have in your house. 

(Indeed, as I have mentioned in the past, you yourself emit low levels of gamma radiation – see: Potassium-40).

Then, let’s move on to this Fox News article about radioactive isotopes found in breast milk in Japan:  http://www.foxnews.com/health/2011/05/19/radioactive-substances-breast-milk-5-japanese-women/

First, the good.  The title of the report states that “radioactive substances” have been found in the breast milk of several Japanese women.  That’s good.  At least we’re moving beyond misnomers like, “Radiation found in breast milk.”

However, then there’s the bad.  And it’s really bad.  The amount of radiation discovered is given no real context.  (The author perhaps didn’t understand it in the first case.)  In fact, while the activity of radioactive material discovered is explained to be nearly a hundred times beneath any safety limit, the critical information is that these limits themselves are far below the range where any negative health effects are to be expected.  Further, if a similar survey were performed in the United States, (with no relation to Fukushima,) radioactive substances would be identified in a proportion of the population.  Seriously.  -And contrary to what stark opponents would have you believe, there are such things as incidental doses of radioactive material.  Our bodies are built to withstand it.  (Radioactive material is naturally-occuring, after all.)

Down the Misinformation Rabbit Hole

Then, we go from bad to worse.  Surprisingly, the top recent offender here was on CNN.  In what I can describe as nothing more than a blatant scare segment, I found myself completely floored when Dr. Michau Kaku, a theoretical physicist whose popular books I greatly admire, was guilty of not only fanning the irrational fear of “radiation,” but he himself uttered the greatest fear-mongering statement I have ever heard.

‘We “came close” to losing northern Japan!’

…What?!  Lost it?  You mean, Dr. Kaku, that the county turned left instead of right, and a clerk at the front of the store had to call on the intercom to get Northern Japan to reunite with the rest of the country?

Liquid Disposal Inc. chemical superfund site. (Credit: EPA)

C’mon!  Unbelievable, and patently untrue.  The Fukushima cleanup will be a difficult but not insurmountable decontamination and decomissioning project.  -This is no different than a cleanup of a historically-toxic steel mill or other major industrial installation that has the potential to release contaminants into the environment.  (See: Superfund Projects.)

Scary Because it Sounds Hip

Then, there’s reporting from the likes of the following articles, (and I otherwise completely love Gizmodo,) spewing misused terminology and editorials-as-fact like Linda Blair does green soup in the Exorcist.

http://gizmodo.com/5824536/japanese-nuclear-emergency-director-you-have-no-right-to-a-radiation+free-life

http://gizmodo.com/5834721/fukushimas-leaked-168-hiroshima-blasts-of-radiation

No one has the right to a radiation-free existence, a statement that is assailed in the first story.  A giant gravity-driven nuclear fusion reactor lights our sky every day.  Hundreds of thousands of similar fusion reactors bombard our planet with cumulative radiation at all times from space.  Radioactive material resides in a great proportion of the rocks around us and bombards us from all sides.  And even plantlife, rich in potassium, hits us with radiation whenever we near it.  Our DNA repair mechanisms arose in such an environment, and it typically causes us no concern at all.

Godzilla, a surviving prehistoric oceanic dinosaur mutated and angered by atomic blasts. (Credit: Ishirô Honda)

And regarding the second story, relating a fission reactor to an atomic bomb borders on criminally sensational.  Terms like “terriby dangerous” and “particularly lethal” are tossed about to great effect with no apparent understanding of their context.  And while relating Fukushima to Hiroshima in “bequerels” – a unit of radioactivity – they speak about the release of cesium as though it is in terms of mass.  It is not!  The activity of the Cs-137 released to the environment in bequerels is very different than the amount of Cs-137 released to the environment in grams - and activity decays with time.  So to say Fukushima is the equivalent of 168 “nukes,” (another misnomer,) mixing up descriptions with unit types, and tossing around editorial qualifiers, it is completely clear that the author has no idea what he is really talking about.  -Only that he fears it and apparently wants a catchy lead line.

  • To the point: The human body possess ~4.4 MegaBequerels of activity from Potassium-40.  The radiation released from the population of the United States just standing there already amounts to more than a TeraBequerel.  The rocky mountains contains millions of TeraBequerels of radioactive material, if you want to quantify it that way, (which is odd.) 

Literally, though while not encouraged, the Fukushima release is a drop in the bucket.  A statistical bump.  It’ll be scientifically traceable for years to come, but it won’t cause Godzilla to emerge from the seas to destroy Tokyo.  And it certainly isn’t the equivalent of “168 Nukes.”  Or at least, not in the way the author seems to be intending it.

Piracy-induced Global Cooling, and Other Correlation Fallacies

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this completely insane and somewhat retracted story claiming that a bump in infant mortality had been attributed to the slight rise in detectable radioactive material breezing over the United States after the Fukushima incident:  http://www.prisonplanet.com/physician-and-epidemiologist-say-35-spike-in-infant-mortality-in-northwest-cities-since-meltdown-might-be-the-result-of-fallout-from-fukushima.html

Modern radiation detection instrumentation is extraordinarily sensitive.  We regularly detect single photons interacting with a detector crystal, log it, and perform statistics conducted over several hours or days.  This allows scientists to make statements like, “A 30% increase over background,” which is essentially measuring 30 times zero. 

So, the levels of radiation detected over the U.S. in this case were far, far beneath what a human body would even notice on planet Earth.  (Let me put it this way – the radiation intensity of a granite countertop would wash out the signal.)  The idea that this “gee-whiz”-grade radiation could have caused anything to infants – in such a short span of time (!) – was patently ridiculous, and physically impossible.  (There is no mechanism for such a miniscule amount of radiation to have casued any damage that led to infant death in such a short amount of time.)

(Credit: Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster)

I am reminded of the now-classic Flying Spaghetti Monster example of a correlation fallacy which states:

  • Since global temperatures have gone up as seaborne piracy has been eliminated and the world’s oceans made more secure, a lack of pirates in the ocean demonstrably causes global warming!  Therefore, to combat global warming, we must put more pirates out on the seas!

This is an over-the-top example of how correlation does not indicate cause-and-effect.  Just so, the authors of the aforementioed study sought to politically paint radiation as a “bad guy” and simply found a correlation, making no effort to tease out cause-and-effect.  As was later made clear, there isn’t any in this case. 

Yet another example of rampant cultural anti-radiation/radiation science bias.

Wading through the Spin

Honestly, the situation at the Fukushima reactors is no picnic, without a doubt.  However, needless sensationalism in the media continued, especially when the category of the accident was upgraded to level 7, “the same as the Chernobyl disaster!”    

… *sigh* … Let me try to untangle this one. 

The important thing here is that a “level 7″ event has no ceiling.  That’s it.  Once something crosses the threshold, whether just met or far exceeded, the event would be classified the same.  The Fukushima event is much closer to the former, whereras Chernobyl is more the latter.

http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/RS_Fukushima_moved_to_Level_7_1204111.html

In reality, despite the classification, the Fukushima incident is still more like Three Mile Island than Chernobyl for very specific reasons.  (The Three Mile Island nuclear accident is still synonymous with nuclear terror, yet how many people were killed?  Zero.  In the end, radioactive iodine was detected in local milk at a dose much less than one would receive from ingesting a single banana.  This is how badly the scenario has been spun.) 

Risk.  It’s all about risk.  Three Mile Island arguably did not perceptibly increase the risk of negative health effects to people in the region at all.  Now, look at the risk involved with cars.  The automobile involves combustion explosions, toxic chemicals, sparking fires, asphyxiating fumes, deaths from vehicle malfunctions or accidents, etc.  By simple math (number of injuries, illnesses or deaths per year,) cars are extremely dangerous - far, far more dangerous than nuclear reactors - and if you subscribe to anthropogenic (man-caused) climate change, running these CO2-spewing devices all over the world has a much greater potential for ecological impact than do nuclear reactors, ignoring the fact that most underground fuel storage tanks at gas stations regularly leak into the environment(!).

If the media waved the risk of driving cars in everyone’s faces the way nuclear power gets hammered, everyone would immediately call for banning cars… and this is especially pointed considering that tens of thousands of people actually die annually on the roads, as opposed to the zero annual deaths due to nuclear powerplants.

Let’s look at the risks of death in context:

  • Annual traffic fatalities in 2010:  ~33,000
  • Annual deaths in 2009 due to common chemicals:  ~1,500
  • Annual deaths due to nuclear powerplants and/or radioactive waste:  0

(The irony here is that the ionizing radiation exposure that is actually likely to cause an increase in cancer is the one no one really fears:  Medical x-rays and MRIs.  We’re getting more of them these days, and because this is ionizing radiation just like that being emitted by Fukushima, cancer statistics will likely see a bump as a result.)

Airline flight attendants receive a much higher radiation dose than any nuclear powerplant worker due to their proximity to cosmic rays (radiation) from space.  No one worries about flying, and everyone worries about the nuclear powerplant next door.

(For a concise versionof the nuclear safety argument, see my comment string here: http://wensdaymedia.wordpress.com/2011/06/27/fort-calhoun-nuclear-plant-update/#comment-8 )

A Final Thought

In terms of environmental impact, the Fukushima incident is arguably less significant than the Exxon Valdez or the BP oil spills, and it is on-par with the superfund sites I mentioned earlier.  Not rosy, but not the end of the world. 

So, how is it that so much fear and panic has been generated, trumping so many other more prevalent risks, when it is based literally on hot air?  It is a mystery to me. 

Perhaps it can be attributed ultimately to a habit of fear regarding radiation.

If we imagine the alternative – a culture providing socially unimpeded support for atomic and nuclear energy, power, and technology, (since our culture already awards this to toxic chemical technology,) we may well have already solved many of the energy problems of today.  Ancient stars worked tirelessly to produce the radioactive elements common in the deep Earth and sprinkled throughout the planet’s crust.  Misused, they are harmful.  Wisely used, they present energy sources with the ability to outlive our planet and our star.  (Talk about efficiency!)

In any event, my final point is to simply keep a critical eye open when it comes to media coverage of radiological events.  Watch for how infrequently health physicists or radiological engineers who are speacialists in nuclear technology are interviewed.  -And hopefully, if you’ve arrived at the end of this long-winded tirade, this has given some food for thought. 

Until next time!





Radiation, Japan, and irresponsible reporting: Part III

19 04 2011

Image of one of the damaged Fukushima reactors. (Credit: Reuters)

As detailed in Part I and Part II of this series, the vocabulary of radiation science, (known as “health physics,”) is being chronically misused and confused by the news media in its coverage of the Fukushima nuclear incident in Japan, and critical context is being ignored when details are reported.  The result?  There is so much misinformation flying around that it’s basically impossible for an ordinary person to make sense of the situation.

This post series is an attempt to help.  So, to briefly recap:

  • “Radiation” cannot travel in a cloud, nor can it “settle” onto something.  Radiation is simply the atomic/sub-atomic particles and rays of x-ray-like energy beamed out from overweight, (i.e. radioactive,) elements.  The effects of these particles/rays are pretty short-range.
  • “Radioactive material” is what can do the distance traveling – actual bits or chunks of stuff – which itself emits radiation.
  • When some radioactive material lands somewhere you don’t want it, it is called “contamination,” and none of it is really mysterious.  You can wash contamination off, wipe it up, etc.  It’s really just chemistry, after all.

Let’s take a moment to further the discussion and talk about why radiation is something we don’t like, and what we can do about it.  In truth, radiation is far more natural than anyone (particularly with an anti-nuclear agenda) tends to broadcast.

Water around Idaho National Laboratory Advanted Test Reactor glows blue due to the intense radiation field. (Credit: Matt Howard)

To be completely fair, you should understand that light is radiation – that’s right, regular ol’ light from your edison bulb.  However, it’s low enough energy that it doesn’t do any damage to you.  All types of light are types of radiation, including infrared light, ultraviolet light (which is why it burns/causes cancer), microwaves (which is why it can cook your food), x-rays (which is why you need a lead apron as a shield at the hospital), as well as the stronger gamma-rays that are one of the main types of radiation people talk about when they say something is radioactive.

However, what few know is that your own body emits gamma rays.  It’s a fact (see: potassium-40).  So do plants growing in the wild, the sun above us, generally half of the mountains around you, and your granite countertops.  Our bodies are built to withstand ordinary amounts of radiation exposure.  Alpha and beta particles (other types of radiation) can’t even penetrate our skin.

Radiation is a normal part of the natural world.

Giant fireballs rise from a burning oil refinery in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture. (Credit: Associated Press)

So, now that we understand that, of course there are intensities of radiation that are unhealthy, just as breathing too many chemical fumes can be quite harmful to you, (e.g., gasoline, cleansers under your sink, bleach, etc.)   This is one of the largest misconceptions about the Fukushima disaster – that it is the worst part of the earthquake/tsunami effects.  In my opinion it is not.

The nuclear reactors are definitely gaining the most media attention, but the biochemical aspects of the earthquake/tsunami disaster are much more widespread.  -Ruptured sewer lines across the nation.  -Burning oil refineries.  -Dumped chemical warehouses swept over by the giant wave and spread out all over the place.  -Biological hazards.  The media is ignoring the true scale of the disaster in its addiction to the nuclear mystique.

But I digress.  Yes, there certainly are harmful and dangerous levels of radiation being emitted by the damaged reactors, which like a more powerful version of a sunburn can damage DNA and cause certain types of cell mutations (cancers).  So, we ask the question: If you’re near to a source of harmful radiation, whether it’s a nuclear fuel rod or a cloud of fallout, what can you do about it?  Fortunately, the answer is very simple.  There are three things you can and should do, and these are the same things you would do in the event of a nuclear attack as well, (so take heed):

  • Get away from the source as fast as possible.  [Time]
  • Get as far away from the source as you can.  [Distance]
  • Position yourself so that dense objects are between you and the radiation source, such as hills, mountains, brick walls, mounds of dirt, etc.  [Shielding]

That’s really all you need to keep in mind, and in that order.  Time, distance, and shielding.  The intensity of radiation drops off exponentially the farther away from it you get, and the less time you spend being bombarded by radiation, the more likely your natural defense mechanisms will be capable of dealing with it and you won’t even notice.  If you can’t do the other two, then maximize your shielding and ride it out.

So, this has swelled beyond my original intent, so we’ll leave explaining the utility of iodine pills ’till next time.  But trust me.  -If you’re not in Fukushima Prefecture, you don’t need them.  (And even then, you probably still don’t.)

One final note of context.  Neither Chernobyl nor Three Mile Island (which was  nothing like Chernobyl) were a result of natural disasters.  Peculiar engineering and human error were the culprits there, respectively.

The Fukushima plant, on the other hand, took a cataclysmic magnitude 9 earthquake followed by an apocalyptic 25-foot-tall wall of water.

I think it’s a testament to their superb engineering that the reactors there are even standing at all.





Radiation, Japan, and irresponsible reporting: Part II

22 03 2011

Example of a uranium ore mine, a very natural source of radiation and radioactive material… and contamination if you track uranium dust home with you. (Uncredited)

So, after my last post, you’ve got the subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences between radioactivity (overweight atoms), radioactive material (the material containing or composed of the overweight atoms), radiation (invisible light and particles emitted by the overweight atoms), and contamination (having radioactive material someplace you don’t want it).

Hopefully, you can also see why mixing these up prevents people from making any sense of either the situation at hand or what scientists tell them (when they’re actually interviewed) on the news.

For instance, if a newscaster says something akin to, “A plume of radiation was released,” well, that doesn’t really make sense.  That’s like saying, “A plume of blue has been released.”  You can release a plume of blue something, be it smoke, confetti, etc., but you can’t release blue.

Similarly, radiation is produced by something else – so, you could say, “A plume of radioactive steam has been released,” and that means that the plume of radioactive steam would be producing radiation as it moved and dissipated, which is perfectly reasonable.  However, just saying the radiation part is nonsensical, and further, adds to the terrifying mystique around the word “radiation” …

Radioactivity is just chemistry and physics, nothing more, nothing less.

Let me provide a second example.  If a scientist reports that there is “radiation” detected somewhere, you now are prepared to understand what he’s not saying, which can actually be more valuable than what he said.  In saying that radiation has been detected, the scientist has not said that they’ve actually found the radioactive material responsible for producing the radiation, or further, any radioactive contamination.  He’s simply saying that instruments have detected either the invisible, high-energy light (gamma rays/x-rays) or atomic particles being shed by radioactive material.  The radiation in this case could be from the sun, plants, humans (yes! – we’ll get to that), granite, radon from igneous rocks, or something more sinister – the scientist hasn’t specified.  He’s reporting facts.  -At such and such a location, radiation of a given intensity has been found.

So, what can such a statement tell you?  It can tell you from a health perspective how long it’s safe to be in the area where the radiation was detected, but it says nothing about the nature, presence, or movement of the material responsible for producing the radiation.  I cannot stress how important it is that this be made clear in the media.

So, for retention’s sake, I’ll pause here to keep these posts divided into brief segments.  Stay tuned for Part 3, where we discuss how radiation is truly crippled by the laws of physics, how that can be best (and simply!) used to your advantage, and just exactly why it’s bonkers for everyone to be snapping up iodine pills.

Until then, cheers.





Radiation, Japan, and irresponsible reporting: Part I

17 03 2011

Intensity diagram of the Japan quake. The epicenter of the quake is represented by the black star. (Credit: United States Geological Survey)

While the media continues to sensationalize what is already a “gee-whiz” bewildering topic for most ordinary people on planet Earth – nuclear reactors and radioactivity – the recent run on Potassium-Iodide tablets in the United States and on the Internet betrays just how badly the outlets are throwing gasoline on the raging inferno of ignorance out there when it comes to radiation.

I can only presume this is to attract viewers.

Consider this  the first in a small series of posts that seek to contribute a clarifying voice out into the chaos.  To what end?  Hopefully, by the end of these posts, intrepid reader, you’ll understand why the nuclear reactor disasters are serious, but you’ll also see why they pale in comparison to the biochemical environmental apocalypse taking place in Japan due to everything else the earthquake and tsunami destroyed.

So, first, let’s start at the beginning.   What is radiation?

Let me emphasize – there is nothing magical or supernatural about what we call “radiation” and/or “radioactivity.”  A radioactive atom is an overweight version of a “normal” atom, and it naturally tries to get rid of energy to slim down to normal size.  To do this, it “radiates” energy in the form of intense invisible light (gamma rays) and physical bits of itself (atomic particles) away from itself.  That’s it.

Really, radiation science is a form of chemistry.  It’s equally amazing that chemicals can combust to drive cars, that acids burn, etc.  So, let’s get over the “mysterious” hump right here: Radiation is just the chemistry and phsyics of overweight atoms, and it obeys the same laws of physics as everything else.

Second, and most importantly before we go any farther, is to start to understand the terminology used (and misused) everywhere.  So, there is really only one thing you need to understand to understand how radiation works and how to deal with it, and it is this: There is a difference between “radiation” and “contamination.”  A huge difference.  -And to confuse the two is to commit a gargantuan error.

Radiation refers to the invisible light and particles that the overweight (i.e., radioactive) atoms are sluffing off.  Experiencing radiation is like basking in the glow of a heat lamp.  You can get burned/damaged by it, but it won’t come off on you.

Radioactive Material is (unsurprisingly and simply) the name given to material that emits radiation.

Contamination, on the other hand, is when radioactive material is actually moved, blown, spilled, etc., someplace that you don’t want it.  If you get covered with dust that is radioactive material (see above), then you have been contaminated.  This is what you need to wash off, make sure you don’t inhale, etc.

So, what’s the take-home?

  • You can stand next to radiation without fear of getting contaminated.  There’s nothing mysterious in the air – it’s no different than how you can walk away from an x-ray machine without fear of tracking some of the x-rays home with you.
  • Radioactive material emits radiation, but it won’t result in contamination if the material is tidy, safely contained, and solid.

You can see now how if you say, “There’s radioactive material over there!” it means something very different than, “There’s radiation over there!” and very different still than, “There’s radioactive contamination over there!”

The first sentence could simply refer to completely safe-to-handle medical sources or other, completely expected sources of radiation.

The second sentence is very ambiguous and refers to the presence of the invisible light (gamma/x-rays) or particles, meaning that radioactive material must be nearby – but it may still be completely expected.

The third sentence is the only one of the three that implies anything is wrong.  Contamination means radioactive material has been deposited somewhere you don’t want it.  So – by mixing these up, which often happens in the news, the conversation can’t even sensibly go any farther.

To be continued…





Space radiation has Astronauts seeing stars

2 01 2011

View of Earth at night from the International Space Station. The thin atmosphere layer visible acts as a natural radiation shield. (Credit: NASA)

There are many astronauts experiences that are well understood.

Everyone knows about “weightlessness,” or floating in a microgravity environment, (which is actually perpetual free-fall around the Earth, but that’s a technicality for another post.)

Everyone has heard about the problem of space sickness that hits some astronauts and not others.   Disruptions in our sense of orientation (i.e., up and down,) are likely to blame.

However, what many do not know about are the strange “flashes” of light astronauts see while in space and what it might mean for their future heath.  With commercial space travel on the horizon and space tourists and commercial astronauts lining up to take part, the realities of space travel must be explored and disclosed.

The Earth’s atmosphere normally acts as a shielding layer, protecting the surface from cosmic and solar radiation.  However, when we travel beyond the atmosphere, (i.e., space,) we increase our exposure to such radiation.  In truth, these “flashes” reported by astronauts are actually electrochemical reactions occurring in astronauts’ eyes as a result of high-energy radiation striking their retinas.  A radiated particle passes through the lens of the eye, strikes the retina, and fakes out the optic nerve, which in turn interprets the signal as light.

So, aside from being strange, what are the potential effects of these flashes?

There appears to be a relationship between this radiation exposure and later development of cataracts, a disease characterized by a clouding of the lens of the eye.  According to a 2001 study, a total of 39 astronauts have developed cataracts later in life, and 36 of them flew on high-radiation missions, such as those to the Moon.

Scientists are currently working on nailing down the genetic link between radiation exposure and cataracts, but until then, it simply appears that exposure to space radiation increases your risk of cataracts later in life.  Advances in and the regularity of surgically-implanted interocular lenses make cataracts less of a concern, but effects like these are something for the aspiring casual spaceflight participant as well as for future planetary and deep space explorers to be aware of.





A Radioactive Astronaut-Hopeful (Space update)

20 11 2010

Me probing an old military well in the Nevada wilderness for geologic data.

By education and trade, I’m a geologist, having worked now in the professional world for more than six years getting my boots dirty performing hydrogeology, water resources, drilling, geomorphology research, and environmental contaminant transport and remediation work in some of the most remote territory this country has to offer.  However, in my push toward becoming an astronaut, one may wonder why I suddenly think it’s a good idea to be working as a radiological engineer and pursuing graduate work in Radiation Health Physics (in addition to my Space Studies work at UND).

Why not study something more direct, like Planetary Geology (Astrogeology)?

The answer, while seemingly obscure, is simple:  What does geology, outer space, the Moon’s surface, Mars’s surface, and advanced spacecraft power and propulsion systems all have in common?  Radioactivity.

Boltwoodite and Torbernite, uranium-bearing mineral samples. (Credit: Ben McGee)

On Earth, (and other heavy rocky bodies,) radioactivity is a natural occurrence.  Plants (and even human beings) all beam out radioactive gamma rays from a natural isotope of Potassium.  (This is prevalent enough that you can calibrate your instruments to it in the wild.)  Even more to the point, radioactive Uranium and Thorium are more common in the Earth’s crust than Gold or Silver.  These elements are crucial to determining the ages of rocks.

Now, go farther.  As we move outside the Earth’s protective magnetic field, (i.e., orbit, Moon, Mars, and everything beyond and in-betwixt,) cosmic and solar radiation are essentially the greatest hazards an astronaut may face.  Radiation shielding and measurement are of primary importance.

Illustration of a manned NTR exploration spacecraft and landing capsule in Mars orbit. (Credit: Douglas/Time Magazine, 1963)

Farther still, once a spacecraft travels beyond about Mars, the intensity of sunlight is such that solar panels are inadequate to supply necessary power.  Nuclear reactors, (Radioisotope-Thermoelectric Generators, or RTGs,) are necessary.

Plus, in order to get out that far (to Mars or beyond) in a reasonable amount of time, our chemical rockets won’t provide enough kick.  Instead, Nuclear Thermal Rockets (NTRs) are about the most efficient way to go, something I’m in the midst of researching in earnest.

Hence, in addition to having experience as a field geologist (for future visits to the Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc.,) being trained to swing a radiation detector around, understanding the exact hazards radiation poses and how it works, and knowing your way around a nuclear reactor are all uniquely suited to space exploration.

Admittedly, it’s an unconventional path, but it’s my path: Riding gamma rays to the stars.





Suiting up for radiation

7 09 2010

Common radiation detection instruments. (Credit: Nevada Technical Associates, Inc.)

So, I’m heading out this week for radiological instrumentation training.  And while I’m studying the latest in handheld “duck-and-cover” devices, I thought I’d take a second to talk about radiation protection.

Actually, everyone is used to doing it.  The dental chair.  The strangely-shaped things in your mouth.  The lead apron.  -Or how about gooping up before hitting the beach or the hotel pool?  X-Ray Machines and UV rays.  -Not quite scary as they are inconvenient.

Well, what are x-rays and ultraviolet rays other than electromagnetic radiation?  -That’s right, they’re the same as the “radiation” that serves as the terror-inducing, little-understood plot point in a zillion bad sci-fi flicks.  X-rays are simply a stronger variant of the ultraviolet-rays that can fry your skin and a weaker variant of the gamma-rays that beam out of radioactive cesium and can fry your DNA.

The apron you wear at the dentist and the sunblock you slather on are common radiation shields.  And, for that matter, so is your skin.

Radiation is a way of life – it beams down from the sun and up from the Earth’s rocks.  Plants soak up naturally-radioactive potassium and beam radiation at you from all sides, 24-hours-a-day.  We’re built to handle it down here.  Life has adapted.  -And while politicians count on the scary sci-fi-effect the word “RADIATION” has on people, it’s nothing to worry about compared to the chemicals we deal with and transport in day-to-day life.  (Try breathing chlorine bleach for more than a couple of seconds and you’ll see what I mean.  But seriously, don’t do that.)

1999 solar eclipse, highlighting the sun's corona. (Credit: Luc Viatour)

In space, however, it’s a different story.  Without the Earth’s atmosphere to act as a natural shield, we’re unprotected from the sun and distant stars’ powerful cosmic radiation.

To make matters worse, most radiation shields (e.g., lead,) are heavy.  The cost of launching heavy materials up to space is enormous, not to mention that lead is a toxic metal, poisonous to astronauts with long exposure times.

It’s times like these that companies like Radiation Shield Technologies catch my eye.  While they’re not necessarily working on NASA-spirited technologies, (they’re more looking at the emergency responders,) the product they’re offering definitely has out-of-this-world merit.

Namely, they’ve developed a fabric called Demron, which according to a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory study possesses many of the radiation-shielding properties of lead while being lightweight, flexible, and potentially layer-able with a bullet-proof fabric like Kevlar.

To me, products like this are where we need to start looking to develop the practical tools of next-generation astronauts and space workers (astrowrights).  While Demron currently doesn’t shield well against the most extreme high-energy rays and particles, it is definitely a start, and it’s much more user-friendly and cost-effective (lighter) than lead.

Considering what an effective combination Demron would be with the micrometeorite protection that a ballistic fabric like Kevlar would offer, I would challenge clothing designers to start putting their heads together to incorporate them into comfortable, practical space-wear for our men and women in orbit.

Like on Earth, radiation is a way of life in space, too.  We should start thinking that way, and Demron seems a good place to start.





Confronting radiation fears through symbology

14 06 2010

Traditional Radiation Trefoil Hazard Symbol.

Just a quick note today on radiation and the irrational fear it provokes.  -Take it from someone who works around “rad” professionally in nature and in industry: Radiation isn’t scary.  It’s normal.

Radiation comes from the sun above, the mountains around, the soil beneath, our wi-fi routers, radio stations, and heck - our own bodies emit infrared and gamma radiation, just like radioactive waste.  (Though, granted, at a much lower intensity.)

Micro-waves are, literally, radiation. Yes, you "nuke" your food in a microwave oven, (though there's no danger of making the food radioactive itself.) Microwave radiation is harmful, which is why all microwave ovens are discreetly engineered as "Faraday Cages" - the same protective housings that the military uses to protect sensitive electronics from nuclear blasts.

While some radioactive elements emit particles as well as “energy,” the simple truth is that the same electromagnetic waves that stimulate our retinas (visible light) are identical in form to the elctromagnetic waves that warm our hands in gloves (infrared rays,) cook our food (microwaves,) burn our skin (ultraviolet waves,) check our bones (x-rays,) and that on the extreme end can be very physically harmful to our tissue (gamma-rays and cosmic rays).  Think of them as colors our eyes can’t see.

That’s it.  That’s all there is to it.  Radiation is natural, not just man-made.  We grew up around it, and our bodies are built to take it.  There’s even a fair amount of serious research to suggest moderate exposure to radiation helps keep us healthy by stimulating our defense systems.

So, why the mystique?  Tradition.  Radiation is associated with atomic bombs, nuclear holocaust, physics perceived to be too complex for any ordianry person to understand (which is completely untrue,) and it’s invisible to human senses.  General misunderstanding is the culprit when we really have nothing to fear but… yes, fear itself.

Radio waves are radiation, too, (even though the waves are generally too large to cause harm to our bodies.)

Now – this fear is really getting in the way of some important developments in power, propulsion, and industry.  What can we do to counter such pervasive fear?  Perhaps we should call it like it is.

See the included examples of microwave, radio, etc., radiation symbols that accurately place radiation with radiation.  Enough with the marketing – call an apple an apple. 

Perhaps if we started putting these symbols out with our appliances and various gadgets and at beaches to denote the threat of sunburns and skin-cancer, we’d realize that not all radiation is truly harmful, and that the radiation that is a hazard is something we’re more than capable of dealing with – and that we really already do.  After all, what is sunscreen but a mild, high-density radiation shield?  (Ever wonder why sunscreen is so thick?)

Two cents.

Perhaps something like this out at pool decks and beaches would stress the need for sunscreen? It's compeltely scientifically and technically accurate, too...





Proposing an Antimatter Hazard Symbol

6 05 2010

Proposed Antimatter Hazard Symbol. Credit: Me

As the most potent potential fuel we are familiar with at this stage in our development as a civilization, I think it’s time we talk about getting serious about Antimatter.

For those unfamiliar, Antimatter is atomically identical to normal matter, but electrically (and subatomically) backward.  Electrons become positrons, and protons become anti-protons, particles with opposite electrical charges.  (Think of flipping over the batteries in your remote control, so the “plus” side is now the “minus.”)  Anyway, when matter and antimatter interact, they are both completely anihillated and converted to pure energy in a release that makes nuclear warheads quake in their boots.  (Gene Roddenberry had it right 40 years ago when he powered his fictional interstellar craft with it.)

To this day, Antimatter is the only thing we know of that could power inter-star-system or galactic space transportation technology, real or imagined, and get the job done in a practical amount of time, (read: a single human lifetime).

This brings us to the present, where I currently find myself buried in 10 CFR 835 federal regulations for work.  They’re the regulations our government has put into place to protect workers and the public from sources of radiation and properly warn them of areas of radiation and radioactive contamination.  These rules relate heavily to symbology and the implementation of the familiar yellow-and-black radiation symbol.

You can see where this is going.  Should we decide to seriously consider Antimatter as the fuel (read: energy storage) source that it has the potential to be, we are going to need to seriously consider warning people about it.  The first step is creating a hazard identity.

There have been a couple of attempts at an Antimatter Hazard Symbol floating around the web, but I haven’t found that they adequately address the risks nor do they necessarily coincide with accepted symbology.  Why not start with something familiar?  I think the radiation tre-foil is panic-inducing enough to serve as an acceptable starting point…

So, the thought evolution of my proposed antimatter symbol is simple:

  • The trefoil already represents radiative energy from a point, so why not start there?  It’s already internationally recognizable.
  • Instead of one point in the symbol center, use two overlapping inverted-color circles, representing the interaction of matter and antimatter.
  • Instead of solid trefoil blades, bisect them to provide the visual appearance of even more energy released than radioactive matter.
  • Instead of yellow, a warning color, use red, a color associated with grave danger or death.  The background color doesn’t matter so much, as long as it provides a high contrast with the red.  I like navy, violet, or black.

And there you go.  People will get it, even if they aren’t specifically familiar.  It immediately looks like a radiation symbol, only worse.  Stay away.  Find someone who has proper instrumentation and knowhow before you start messing with whatever you’ve got in your hands with this symbol on it.

UPDATE 04/2012: For more info and subsequent uses of the symbol, click here!

Thoughts, anyone?

Better in black? (reader-suggested)

Second, modified example: (feel free to use any of these in your own projects/work!)

Credit: Ben McGee








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