Heather Michon

Heather Michon
June 25
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MARCH 18, 2011 12:07PM

The Radioactive Nightmare

Rate: 6 Flag
Life over the last decade or so seems to be one big game of How Worried Should I Be?

Terrorist attacks? Probably not all that worried.

Anthrax attacks? Well, my post office was in all likelihood served by one of the affected distribution sites, so maybe I’ll put on a pair of gloves on my way to the mailbox.

DC Snipers? Eh, I like taking the back roads.

Hurricanes, floods, forest fires, pandemics, oil spills, revolutions, economic collapse --.there are all sort of things out there to put one’s knickers in a twist these days. (And that’s even before you turn on the Discovery Channel to learn about super-volcanoes and mega-quakes and rogue asteroids and gamma ray bursts and who-knows-what-all else.)    

So here we are, and on the other side of the planet, there’s a nuclear power plant damaged by a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that has killed thousands and left more than a million survivors without homes or hope. The plant is belching radiation and plutonium and who knows what else, and that steam and smoke and gunk is hitching a ride on the Westerlies, arriving, like an unwelcome guest, sometime today.

It occurred to me earlier this week that before I set out to the local health-food emporium to beat some hippy mama over the head for the last bottle of potassium iodide or started fashioning a little tinfoil suit for my kitten, I decided to figure out How Worried I Should Be, and came up with...not much. If I lived in Japan, I’d be worried. But here in Virginia, it looks like Kitty and I will possibly see a higher-than-normal-but-nowhere-near-dangerous exposure to radiation.  

Radiation. That’s the key word, isn’t it. Simple, everyday, plain-vanilla pollution is believed to be responsible for upwards of 40% of deaths in the world each year, but we barely pause when someone says “sulfur dioxide” or “particulate matter”. Three billion people still rely on solid fuel -- wood, animal dung, biomass, coal -- for their daily cooking needs. Black carbon emissions have been found to be a major contributor to global climate change, but nobody is talking about outlawing campfires.        

The Christian Science Monitor  posted a story this week on how the global panic over the disaster is almost inversely proportional to the actual risk. We misremember past nuclear disasters like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, making them more deadly and more dangerous than they actually were. We overreact to the threat posed by relatively small doses of radioactivity.

Much of this fear, says Dr. Jerrold Bushburg of the University of California-Davis, comes from pop culture. Look at the comics, he says: Peter Parker, bit by radioactive spider, becomes Spider-Man; Bruce Banner, absorbs radioactive waves, becomes the Incredible Hulk; hum-drum Japanese lizard, exposed to nuclear detonation, becomes Godzilla. (The list goes on.) “It gives you subliminal messages about the capacity of radiation to do harm,” Bushberg told the newspaper.       

That’s not quite right. For one thing, Godzilla isn’t really scary, and Spider-Man and the Hulk are not villains. More importantly, pop culture reflects the anxiety of the times as much as it drives them. When it comes to All Things Nuclear, most Americans formed our feeling during the Cold War.

I think most of us who grew up between the 1950s and the 1980s wondered if we’d live to actually grow up; we suspected our childhoods would end in a bright blast of fission because some idiot somewhere burped and caused another idiot to press a button. How many times did we all hear about how missiles would reach us X minutes after a launch, and a strike on [insert major city here] would kill so many millions in an instant? There was no hierarchy of exposure in most of these scenarios: you either died instantly or you suffered in some post-apocalyptic doomscape.   

Growing up in the 1980s, my peers and I were fed a steady diet of movies like Red Dawn and WarGames and The Day After, and that awesomely cheese-tastic Orson Wells “documentary” on Nostradamus that had some vaguely ethnic guy in a sparkly blue turban blowing us to smithereens by the end of 1994. In northern Vermont, we also knew we were just across Lake Champlain from Plattsburgh Air Force Base, a primary target for the Russians, and that we’d most likely vaporize instantly, along with the lake.

Thirty years on, when you hear words like “radioactivity” and “fallout,” you can’t help but think back to the fears of those times. It’s contributing to the run on Geiger counters and potassium iodide tablets, gas masks and chemical suits, even though countless scientists and public health officials have assured, time and again, that there is no scenario under which radiation levels from Japan will be high enough to hurt anyone here.     

Nuclear energy is a powerful force with some very dangerous downsides, as the Fukushima Daiichi disaster is so spectacularly showing. We need to have a full and honest debate over the continuing use of nuclear power plants and to advance renewable alternatives. But you can’t have a full and honest debate from a place of not-quite-rational fear. Hopefully, we’ll be soon be able to move past the fear and plot our best course to our energy future.   

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We'll be okay if we just "duck and cover" right? Please say yes.
I think there is one other aspect behind the "not-quite-rational fear": and that is trust. The U.S. government and scientists too blew a lot of their credibility regarding radiation being good patriots during the Cold War. I'm talking about Navajo uranium miners and Mormon housewives who watched the test bombs from their backyards: citizens were not informed about the potential dangers and are still suffering terribly, even when the govt/scientists knew full well that there were serious risks. We've been hearing these stories (especially those of us in the West) ever since the Russians stopped being the ultimate bad guys. So now when we're being told not to worry, it's hard to not to douse the placation with salt (or potassium iodide)!

Of course, if we made sure our kids got a decent science education, maybe they'll be able to think for themselves, sans Spidey and the Hulk.
Thanks so much for this post!

For many people, radiation has connotations of absolute evil -- there is no time to consider how much radiation, or what type, as a poison it's in a category all by itself. That's reflected in the silly nostrum that "there's no safe level of radiation", which has been repeated so often in alternative media recently.

And because "radiation" conjures up such deep-seated fears, a radioactive headline is sure to sell newspapers and draw viewers. It's hard to say whether mass media has caused the general level of ignorance about the actual effects of radiation, or simply profited from that ignorance. It's a feedback loop.

I'm happy to have evolved and grown up in a radioactive universe. Just as well, since there's no other universe available.
I was talking to my students last night in my political science class, and one of them mentioned that she was interested in finding potassium iodide tablets but found them sold out everywhere she went. So I asked her why she needed them. She repeated what everyone else was saying about the whole radiation scare. I then said, "you are aware that you can get potassium iodide from seaweed, right? Just go to a Japanese restaurant and chow down." My students were amazed that I would know this. I was amazed that no one else did.
Speaking of full and honest debates, can we start by having a full and honest debate on 'global climate change'? I mean, while you're pointing out the false risk we associate with radiation exposure due to this power plant, you just passively mention 'global climate change' as though that, in contrast, is some well established risk facing society.

If we should apply rational standards, let's apply them across the board. Otherwise we're sending mixed messages.
It's all good - Ann Coulter has assured us that a little radiation inoculates against cancer! How con-veeeen-ient.
Of course, worrying won't help, but if you'd prefer to worry you might inform yourself about how honest the nuclear power industry is about the dangers that might occur and the aging reactors within the USA that frequently have to be shut down for defects that possibly could kill millions of people if a bad unnoticed valve screws up the cooling process as has occurred. There are regular leakages of radioactive pollutants from these plants that are unreported or denied by officials in the industry and the government so as not to create public fears. The economics of a nuclear plant are such that only heavy government subsidies will get them built since they cannot get sufficient commercial financing or insurance and the disposal of their deadly wastes is an ever growing potential catastrophic disaster.

But why worry?
It's worth a few moments to read the current article in the NY Times as to what it's like in Chernobyl. At http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/20/weekinreview/20chernobyl.html?_r=1&hp

As they say, a disaster like that makes that area uninhabitable, a place of insidious silent death imperceptible to those without proper instrumentation. I often have nightmares about it since humans and other living things have no senses that alarm to the dangers and they exist for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, something our cultures and civilizations cannot deal with except to flee them totally. Earth becomes an alien planet. Uninhabitable.
“Radiation. That’s the key word, isn’t it.”

Nope. What you need to be afraid of, among other things, is “radioactive contamination.”

Six reactors are involved, along with the nuclear waste stored above each reactor (which is the main problem). No one knows what will happen if there’s a full meltdown because this situation is unprecedented. Chernobyl and TMI involved only one reactor each.

“We misremember past nuclear disasters like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, making them more deadly and more dangerous than they actually were.”

Wrong again. Greenpeace estimates 93,080 people died. And there were health consequences for many others. Obviously, it’s hard to get exact numbers when many cancers occurred years later. Go here to learn more:

Also, a new study that came out this month shows that the increase of thyroid cancers in Chernobyl continues to go up and that risk doesn't seem to abate over time:
Another crucial fact in dealing with nuclear energy which is rarely, if ever, mentioned is that nuclear reactors require vast, huge amounts of water daily to stay cool. In a shrinking world with fewer water resources and corporations moving to control all water sources, keep in mind that creating energy through nuclear power is absolutely ridiculous due to the water consumption required and the "dead zones" created by released, heated water back into rivers and streams. Note that all nuclear power plants are built near a water source.

The 20th century was the "century of oil" whereas the 21st will be the "century of water", just as scientists predicted 30-40 years ago. Just watch what's about to happen to water supplies in the southwestern USA.....it's just a matter of time before they run out....dwindling water supplies are a reality, yet two grotesquely obscene and totally unnecessary means of wasting huge amounts of water are meat production and nuclear energy! Look it up for yourselves, as I used to tell my students!
i would prefer a solar cell array on the roof, but there is a case for nuclear in the national power mix.

what i don't want to see is commercial construction of nuclear power plants. this is a place where you don't want 'eye on the profit margin' engineering.
When the general approach to government these days is to toss out basic services to pay for whatever the military seems to want I would hardly expect them not to skimp on fundamental safety measures in nuclear endeavors. Every nuclear plant constructed including the one under construction here in Finland is running way over budget. It does nothing to calm my suspicions about safety.
Insofar as government construction is concerned it is wise to remember the thoughts of one astronaut sitting in his capsule waiting to be launched at the tip of a huge rocket subject to violent explosion. He was quoted as being mentally fixed that the project was accorded to the lowest bidder. Government construction is done by private companies.
Soap Box Amy,

you point is moot. Most of the more modern reactor are designed such that the water is recycled in producing electricity. That is, water is used to cool the nuclear fuel rods, the rods evaporate the water during cooling, the steam produced turns turbines that make electricity and then the water is re-condensed using secondary cooling water. The secondary cooling does not need to be fresh nor drinking quality. It just needs to be cooler than steam.

So over many decades, such a system might lose a little bit of water, but not nearly enough to put any serious on water resources.