Wednesday, 20 July 2011

A reminder of risk

From a piece co-authored by Ken Buesseler in this week's Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists ...
It is anticipated that for most locations the doses to humans from naturally occurring radionuclides, even for avid seafood consumers, will exceed those from the radionuclides released by the Fukushima accident. Near Sellafield, for example, doses to humans from naturally occurring radionuclides in seafood caught in the Irish Sea are about an order of magnitude higher than doses from artificial radionuclides. Total collective dose rates from natural radionuclides via marine pathways on a global basis are four orders of magnitude higher than collective doses from Chernobyl radionuclides. Even in the Baltic and Black Seas, the marine waters most contaminated by Chernobyl fallout, natural radionuclides provide a much larger collective dose to seafood consumers than do Chernobyl radionuclides.
Amid all of the justified concern about the meltdown at the reactors, it's been easy to lose sight of the context. While the piece argues for a full scientific assessment of the release of radionuclides (and is a nice summary of what they are, and what the expected risks are), the paragraph above is a particularly helpful reminder of the natural background, and its relationship - for most people and places - with the reactor release.

Not that such context seems to have calmed the leadership in Japan and Germany. If the alternative was plentiful green (or fusion) energy, that'd be one thing. But as the alternative is likely to be fossil fuel energy, the rush to shove in the control rods is dangerously misplaced. While the connection between nuclear power and harm to humans is far more direct than that between climate change and the harm it causes (and will cause), this easy attribution obscures the vast disparity in the total magnitude of harm from these power sources.

It's been almost 66 years since the power of atomic energy was first revealed to the general public. One might think that this would be long enough a period for people to get over their instinctive reaction to this first demonstration. It would seem not.


Anonymous said...

You might find this an interesting look at the subject of atomic fun....

FYI: “Rad Decision: A Novel of Nuclear Power” gives an insider's view of the US nuclear industry and includes an event very similar to Fukushima. (Same reactor type, same initial problem.) The novel is free online at the moment at . (No adverts, nobody makes $$$ off this site.) Paperback at Amazon. Reader reviews at the homepage and Amazon say the book is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person. Few understand how atomic power really works day to day -- including most scientists, academics and journalists. The author has been working at nuke plants for 25 years.

“I got to about page four and I was hooked, I couldn’t put it down… It was very easy to read." -- DAVID LEVY, noted science author and comet discoverer.

"I'd like to see Rad Decision widely read." - STEWART BRAND, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog.

VICKY commented at the homepage: "Thanks for making this available online…. Your novel explains the workings of a nuclear plant, so that a layperson can understand. A very suspenseful read!"

Plumbago said...

Thanks for the pointer. I can't promise to read it (not least because I have a never-ending stack of other things to read), but it's good if those involved on the inside with nuclear energy try to make it less mysterious to the wider public. In part, the public's scepticism is a reasonable approach to a relatively complicated technology with a shady association with the military. Anyway, thanks for dropping by!

Anonymous said...

"the public's scepticism is a reasonable approach to a relatively complicated technology with a shady association with the military"

That is an excellent way of summarizing it in one sentence, which is hard to do!

James Aach

Plumbago said...

A harder task, at least in terms of doing so without sounding too pejorative, would be to summarise in one sentence the relationship that many in the environmental movement have towards nuclear energy.

Because of their interest in environmental issues (fed, largely, by what scientists have been able to say about the Earth), this should be a better-informed demographic. At least in theory. But there just seems to be black-and-white thinking around nuclear energy, in spite of the actual grey we know about the subject.

It's clearly not a good thing to release radionuclides into the environment, but to be grown-up about it one needs to consider both the quantitative scale of such contamination in case of accidents, as well as what the alternatives for generating power are. CO2 is safe from a toxicology perspective at the levels we've raised it to, but its effects are far more malign from a climatology perspective.