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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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.








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