Bird flu will be the end of us all. Swine Flu can wipe out your community if only one person gets it. Salmonella has transferred to tomatoes so all Mexican food ever made is now suspect. A lobbyist PhD sabotaged a Toyota, so now all Japanese automakers must have bad brakes. Yeah, we’ve heard this kind of crap before. But throw in the word “nuclear” and everyone goes ape.
What is it about the idea of nuclear power that gets people so up in arms? You mention atomic anything and immediately people are telling you why we should never use it and it will only destroy us. From a tech standpoint, nuclear energy is really the only way humanity is going to move forward (at least with our current understanding of the universe). Until someone can come up with Stark’s Arc Reactor, streaming energy from subspace, or dark matter generation, we are going to have to rely on some kind of nuclear reaction to get the power we need.
Submarines? Nuclear. Aircraft carriers? Nuclear. Space shuttle? Nuclear (not the rockets, but the power supply on board uses fuel cells to create a nuclear reaction who’s byproducts are electricity and water). The Starship Enterprise? Nuclear.
What’s really funny to me is that the only people who are really against nuclear power fall into two groups; environmentalists, and Americans. I find this hilarious because environmentalists would rather we develop square miles of land into solar farms or wind powered stations. What do you see being more environmentally friendly: a building sheltered deep in a natural forest, or wasted land as far as the eye can see with shiny mirrors all over it? Considering the one that takes up all land also only produces a fraction of the power, and the answer is a no-brainer to me. Also funny is the deep fear American’s have over the whole ordeal. We are the only nation to actually use nuclear power against another nation (not to mention the amount of tests on our own). Perhaps if we had developed nuclear power before we made a nuclear bomb we’d feel different about it.
In any case, radiation from Japan’s Fukushima Reactor Meltdown has been detected in various places, and the US news media has decided that it’s time for all out panic again. Always looking for the most outrageous angle, they have reported that radiation is 800 times the normal level in some areas! Granted, 800 is a big number. It’s certainly bigger than 1, and if 1 can kill you then 800 can kill you 800 times, right?
Except it’s not 1. Radiation is measured in sieverts (sv) and 1sv will make you ill if you absorb it all at once. It’s something you want to avoid. The normal amount of radiation around the Fukushima plant was 0.09usv (micro sieverts). In case your metric skills are rusty, that is 0.00000009 sv. So, when they said that radiation levels outside the gate were 8 times higher than normal, they meant it was now in the area of 0.00000072 sv. Not 1. Not 800.
Now, I’ll give you that radiation is very dangerous and if I were to walk into the reactor core I’d be instantly dead. But what people don’t seem to understand is that radiation doesn’t decay in a linear fashion. Like most things in nature, be it the Richter scale to the Warp 10 energy barrier, each new level is a magnitude greater than the last. This also works in reverse. Radiation actually decays following an inverse square law.
So, what’s with my title? Well, as it turns out EVERYTHING emits radiation. While most people associate radiation with glowing goo and ninja turtles, the truth is that everything that emits energy is producing radiation. In other words, if it RADIATES something, then it’s producing RADIATION. Got it? The trick is knowing how much, and whether it’s harmful or not. To help put some of this in perspective, XKCD (an awesome webcomic that everyone should be reading) has produced a handy infograph to help you understand if you’re about to die from radiation poisoning. Yes, cell phones are referenced. So are bananas.
Yes, by the by, that DOES point out that living near a coal plant is worse than living near a nuclear plant.
Now, as for the argument as to whether or not we should use nuclear power . . . I’ve got some bad news for you naysayers; we already are. Japan has 54 (well, 53 now) commercial reactors in operation that produce 30% of its overall power. The United States (the country most afraid of nuclear power) has 104 reactors providing close to 20% of our total power. Yeah, we have that many. We actually have more reactors than any other nation on Earth and are the world leader in providing nuclear power. So why the ignorance about it?
Well, people are quick to point out things like 3 Mile Island and the like. I will grant that was a massive failure the likes of which have never been seen. Wait, that’s a lie; Deepwater Horizon was a disaster the likes of which have never been seen. And the Exxon Valdez. And the Texas City Refinery. And the Monogah coal mine explosion. And the Scofield coal mine explosion. In fact, when compared to the rest of energy industry, the nuclear side of things has the best safety record out of all of them. In addition to the safety procedures in place, the buildings themselves are shielded from attack and are reportedly the strongest structures ever made by mankind.
So, are Japanese reactors just crappy then?
No. The only plant really having problems is the now famous Fukushima-Daiichi reactor complex. The complex was built in 1967 and went online in 1970. It had a triple redundant emergency system and was built to withstand a peak ground acceleration of up to 0.18g. The problem is that this 44 year old system just got hammered by a quake with a 0.35g PGA and is in an area that has recorded 731 quakes and tremors in the last 14 days alone! We’re talking about an earthquake that has permanently shifted Japan’s coast line by 2.8 meters and actually threw the Earth’s axis off by a centimeter. When hammered by such forces, it’s not hard to see why something would break!
The long and short of all this, I suppose, is to just stop freaking out about the possibilities of radiation poisoning coming into the USA from Japan. The only people who we should really be worrying about are the Fukushima 50 who have stayed on-site to help contain the reactor containment despite the ever growing levels of danger (and who’s efforts seem to have worked as the Wall Street Journal now reports that levels are dropping dramatically). If we can all take a step back and see who really needs help in this disaster and stop listening to news agencies who only want the ratings (and who can’t even report details remotely correctly) then we’d all be a lot better off.
While I’m on my soapbox, now would be a good time to ask that anyone with any extra to spare please consider donating to the Red Cross Relief Fund (click the picture below). Japan was one of the largest contributors to the relief efforts to the United States after Hurricane Katrina and we owe it to the Japanese people to return the favor.