At the risk of going off topic a bit [like you’ve ever held back before – imaginary Ed], I have to pause here to sling some excrement at my colleagues reporting on the Fukushima nuclear plant.
As I’ve ranted at length on Freelance Unbound’s excellent post, the only people more ignorant of nuclear science than the average citizen are the journalists writing about it on his/her behalf.
It really is preposterous to scream, as the media do today, that plutonium has been found in soil at the Fukushima plant. It’s like reporting that arsenic has been found in the soil of a poison factory.
Reaction 1: No shit. Reaction 2: How much?
Well, as it turns out, the answer to the Reaction 2 question turns out to be “very little”. Er, like, very little. Not enough to cause any human health worries, anyway. So the headline is an utterly disgraceful bit of panic-mongering without the slightest justification. In fact, the whole story is totally and intentionally misleading.
But it’s worse than that. It’s not even a ‘story’. Reason: Reaction 1.
I’d be amazed if you didn’t find a few particles of Plutonium somewhere at Fukushima – or at Sellafield, or any other nuclear power station anywhere. It’s produced in all nuclear fission reactors, either intentionally in so-called ‘breeder’ reactors, or in small quantities in reactors running on ‘low-enriched’ Uranium-238.
In fact, about a third of the power generated in a typical reactor comes from the fission of Plutonium-239, which is not supplied as a fuel to the reactor, but derives from fission of the Uranium-238 fuel. Some of it is bound to turn up where it shouldn’t be – especially after a massive earthquake and tsunami.
Now Plutonium is undeniably nasty stuff. Very nasty stuff – when it turns up in more than trace quantities.
But here’s the thing: that troublesome quantity issue is not a trivial detail. It really isn’t. ‘How much?’ is the critical, essential, key question whenever you’re discussing radioactive substances.
You’re being irradiated right now. If you live in Cornwall, you’re being irradiated rather more than me (and you might even want to do something about it). If you’re in Ramsar, Iran, you’re getting a LOT more than me – up to the equivalent of 4,300 chest X-rays every year simply by living there (but don’t panic: despite getting a radiation dose many times higher than the maximum mandated for nuclear power workers, you may well be healthier and live longer).
The point is, radiation exposure is highly relative. Whether or not it’s dangerous depends utterly upon the quantity and the period of exposure.
“Locals exposed to radiation leak from nuclear plant!” sounds (to journalists) like a good story. “Iranian woman lives for a year in Ramsar!” doesn’t. But as you can immediately see, the second headline may involve a higher dose of radiation exposure than the first – yet still without necessarily being dangerous.
Which is a long way of saying: don’t believe everything you read in the press. Most importantly, don’t be panicked by it.
As the most authoritative survey of medical evidence from the Chernobyl disaster showed, the greatest damage to human health and happiness was caused not by the radiation (whose effects turned out to be much less pernicious than everyone feared at the time), but by the fear of it.