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.



4 responses

25 03 2011

THANK YOU! I am really tired of articles about this disaster talking of radiation being carried by the wind or other such nonsense. That’s like saying that light can be carried by the wind. Or when they say that something is releasing radioactivity. Again, that’s like saying that something is releasing jogging; radioactivity is an activity, not a substance. It’s made worse by the fact that many of these same outfits have published glossaries of the terms, but can’t even be bothered to read them. I found something to point them to, which correctly describes the terms.

It’s not just pedantry either, because it indicates a lack of even basic understanding of these things. It’s not rocket science either. You have radioactive materials, which emit radiation. If not blocked by shielding, it can be harmful if of sufficient magnitude. When radioactive materials are released into the environment, they may pose a hazard. But, in the process of releasing radiation, they decay into non-radioactive materials, and some decay very quickly, so their release into the environment isn’t as dangerous in the long-term. As for hazard, we take risks every day, because the benefit outweighs it; we even voluntarily expose ourselves to radiation, again, because the risk is minor. Nuclear power is no different.

19 04 2011
Radiation, Japan, and irresponsible reporting: Part III « Astrowright

[…] detailed in Part I and Part II of this series, the vocabulary of radiation science, (known as “health physics,”) is […]

29 06 2011
29 05 2012
Radiation, Japan, and Irresponsible Reporting: Part IV « Astrowright

[…] 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 […]

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