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.

Year 2069 on the Moon: Fort Rille

23 10 2010

My ShiftBoston Moon Capital Competition entry. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Well, being that the Moon Ball is already past us and I my inbox hasn’t lit up, I imagine I didn’t win anything and it’s safe to submit my concept of “Fort Rille” to the world.   What is it, exactly?  It’s a concept for a future lunar settlement (year 2069, 100 years after Apollo 11,) that I entered in ShiftBoston’s Moon Capital Competition.

I don’t think the concept was far-out enough to please the judges, frankly.  (-And I have my suspicions that, not being a graphic designer, my artwork may have held me back as well…)  However, I do think this is exactly what our first settlements will look like.  Much like the Old West and turn-of-the-20th-Century exploration expeditions after which my concept was modeled, life will be rough, exciting, fulfilling, and a little dangerous.

Highlights include hybrid solar and betavoltaic battery power systems, Earth-telecommuter-controlled robots and roving lifeboats to help out, sunglasses to protect against high-intensity glare, and ubiquitous polymer-based duster-style jackets for weight, warmth, and radiation protection.

The contest designers wanted something a little less practical, I imagine.  I just couldn’t stop myself from creating what I think we’ll actually see in another 50 years.  (And yes, you might note that the “fort” isn’t military, and the more lunar-savvy amongst you might also object that while the settlement is called “rille,” it isn’t on a rille – it’s in a crater.  But that wasn’t the point.  I just thought the name captured the right feel of the place.)

Go ahead and take a look.  If you’d like, let me know what you think.

I may be projecting, but I imagine some pretty cool science and blues would (will?) come out of a place like this.  Which, of course, naturally go hand-in-hand.

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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