Now, radiation as a whole is a HUGE topic, but here’s me barely scratching the surface, for educational reasons:
Experts agree that to curb Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, we need nuclear energy to be a part of our mix; it can produce on par with fossil fuels without emitting any GHGs or other pollutants into the environment. The only real waste produced by Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs) is low-level waste such as rags and stuff used to clean equipment that may contain radioactive contamination, and high-level waste such as fuel rods.
Many people in the nuclear community agree that used fuel rods are not waste because they still contain about 94% of their usable material and just need to be reprocessed, but we’ll come back to that conversation another time. I want to take this time to talk about radiation, since that is the primary concern of those who argue against our largest source of clean energy.
So what is Radiation? Radiation is the emission of energy in the form of electromagnetic waves. To break it down further, there are two primary types of radiation: ionizing and non-ionizing. Ionizing radiation is electromagnetic waves that have enough energy to remove an electron from an atom or molecule, or “ionize” it (ionization or breaking molecular bonds is how radiation damages DNA). Non-ionizing, then, does not.
Almost everything emits radiation, from cell phones and radios, microwave ovens, televisions, wifi and bluetooth, to x-ray machines, bananas, and unstable atoms such as uranium. The key difference is that non-ionizing will not cause radiation sickness, cancer or death in the way that we think of radiation. They can warm you up, cook your food, and even be weaponized, but they will not leave you with lasting effects after the fact (unless you are somehow seriously burned by them). If you don’t work in an industry that uses these waves at extreme levels (such as installing cell phone towers), you are not likely ever going to even notice that these waves are all around us, all the time.
Ionizing radiation is the “radiation” everyone fears when talking about nuclear power. Like its lower-frequency cousin, ionizing radiation is all around us all the time. Ionizing radiation can, in extreme cases, cause radiation sickness, cancer, or death, but the doses required for this to happen are higher than anyone outside of the industry has or will ever receive in the United States (short of a nuclear war ever happening).
Hazard VS Risk is another conversation we’ll have in the future, but suffice it to say that while ionizing radiation can be hazardous, the risk is extremely low because the chances of encountering a dangerous dose are unbelievably unlikely.
Ionizing radiation exists in everything around us, and even within our own bodies! Isotopes of carbon and potassium are radioactive and can be detected with the proper equipment, and everything that contains carbon or potassium have a small percentage of these isotopes within them. This is essentially how carbon-dating is measured, by checking how much carbon is still radioactive vs what should be expected at a given date, using the half-life of ¹⁴Carbon.
Radioactive potassium and carbon are just two examples, but another good example of this is ⁴⁰Potassium contained in bananas and many tree nuts. It’s enough radiation to be detected with the proper equipment but not enough to be harmful.
We are constantly surrounded by extremely low levels of ionizing radiation emitted from the earth itself, from concrete, marble, food and water, and it’s not only harmless amounts but it’s inescapable on Earth. There are in fact “safe levels of radiation,” and anyone with a functioning geiger counter can put the myth that there aren’t to rest. Like anything else, it’s the dose that makes the poison, and radiation takes an extremely high dose before it’s poisonous.
Another perfect example of this is the tritiated water at Fukushima waiting to be released into the ocean; this water is clean and the radiation level is so low that you could drink it if you really wanted (a glass would be about the radioactive equivalent of eating four bananas). The natural levels of radiation found in the ocean far exceed any level this water could add, but because there’s “radiation,” some people assume that there is a danger to ecosystems and aquatic life, as well as our own food chain. This is a valid concern, but once the actual numbers are examined, we find this concern to be unfounded.
Lastly, to prove the point that there are indeed safe levels of radiation, I often drink from antique glass colored with uranium, called uranium-glass and sometimes vaseline glass, which is detectable with a geiger counter or a blacklight (pictured below). So in conclusion I leave you with this:
“COULD drinking alcohol from uranium-glass give me cancer? Yes, alcohol has been known for that regardless of what glass it’s drank from.
But can’t the uranium-glass contribute? Not unless I eat it, and even then, cancer will be the least of my problems…”
Detector in the photo is the Haak SMG2. For reference, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has established a 100mRem/year exposure limit for members of the general public. 100mRem/year is equal to 1,000 microSieverts. The number on this counter is 0.48 microSieverts, only about two to four times the background radiation level in my house on any given day.