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:


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):


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:


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):


(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:


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


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 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.

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.

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