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.


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