Friday, January 1, 2016

I Still Have My Toes

We have got to stop science and scientific progress... Facts separate people. - Abby Hoffman

Dateline: Memphis, Tennessee; circa 1950: When my mother would take me to buy shoes in my pre-teen years, we would use the shoe store's fluoroscope to check the fit of shoes on my rapidly growing feet. I thoroughly enjoyed my chance to be like Superman with X-ray vision, seeing my toe bones wiggle through layers of rubber and canvas. Of course I would have to check several pairs of shoes each visit. And there were three or four visits every year.

Dateline: Europe; May 1986: After the Chernobyl accident, there was, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, and increase of between 100,000 to 200,000 European babies who were intentionally aborted by their mothers. These were not unwanted fetuses. The babies' mothers had been convinced they might be carrying "nuclear monsters."

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What is the significance of these two events, separated as they are in time and distance? In my opinion, they show the sea change in our attitude toward radiation dangers - and provide a good example of the widespread ignorance of the means and units by which dangers can be quantified.

While we'll get around to using proper units to describe radiation and its biological effects a little later, for now let's just call the radiation I got from inspecting my toes through the fluoroscope as one SXR (Shoe X-ray). We'll compare this dose to the doses received by the Europeans after Chernobyl.

Obviously the amount of radiation received from the accident at Chernobyl would be strongly dependent on geography. In Greece, where abortions were epidemic, the dose from Chernobyl was about 1.4 SXR units. This is the equivalent of the additional radiation received from background sources in nineteen months of living in Colorado instead of Texas. In Italy it was 0.8 SXR; in France less than 0.5 SXR. The increase over background radiation in Spain and Portugal was not really measurable, as the tiny theoretical increases disappeared below the slightest variations in natural background radiation.

So, what has changed in the forty-odd years since we didn't give a thought to using the shoe fluoroscope, and today, when mothers abort their children because of a mind-distorting fear that trivial amounts of radiation would cause genetic dangers to their in utero children? And we should remember, all of this occurred long after data were widely available showing no genetic damage or excessive mutations (over the approximately 6% rate of naturally occurring genetic defects) reported in extensive investigations of Japanese mothers exposed to 100,000 times the radiation received by women downwind of the Chernobyl fire.

Before going on, though, let's look at the radiation on the borders of U.S. nuclear power plants, and also review the Three Mile Island "disaster" that anti-nuclear activists want so badly for us to consider as being on the same order of magnitude as Chernobyl.

Under U.S. law, it is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that regulates the amount of radiation that a nuclear power plant can emit annually at its boundary. In practice, the plants seldom approach this limit, but it amounts to just under 3% of a SXR. So, if you lived next to a power plant emitting its maximum for thirty-five years, you'd get the same amount of radiation I did each time I pushed the button to see if my Keds were large enough to be worn out before my toes pushed through.

"But what about accidents," you might ask, "such as the catastrophe at Three Mile Island?"

In our worst nuclear plant accident, the "survivors" living within a few miles of the "disaster" at TMI were subjected to a withering 0.6% of an SXR - but only if they had remained unclothed, outside, during the entire incident. Those who remained "on site" for the duration would have been exposed to just under one-half of an SXR.

But were't there injuries at TMI? Only if you consider anxiety an injury. All the reported afflictions consisted of people who were either mentally or physiologically harmed by the media's sensationalistic mishandling of the incident. Ironically, those who evacuated to the homes of relatives in Denver would have received more additional radiation in a one-day stay than had they lain naked in the front yard of their Harrisburg homes during the week of media frenzy.

[The main concern of the politicians and bureaucrats was a hydrogen bubble they feared would explode and spew radioactive materials across the state. Fortunately, there was a high-school chemistry student who reminded them that oxygen is needed for hydrogen combustion. The hydrogen was vented to the atmosphere, and the danger evaporated.]