Friday, January 8, 2016

Just How Dangerous is Radiation?

In March 1954, sailors onboard the Lucky Dragon were exposed to fallout from a hydrogen bomb test conducted on Bikini atoll. While his two compatriots suffered from radiation sickness, one sailor died the following September. I was a teenager at this time, and yet I can remember a huge amount of news regarding the incident. I suspect it shaped my fear of radiation.

In July 2000, a joint U.S.-Russian Federation report gave as sixty the total number of "criticality" accidents that had occurred in the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, Argentina and Japan. These accidents occur when too much "fissionable" material comes together for whatever reason and produces for a few moments the same conditions as would be found inside a nuclear reactor. It doesn't cause a "nuclear explosion" but a flash of blue light and a large spike of heat energy. Mr. Harry Daghlian has the unenviable distinction of being the first criticality accident victim in August 1945, during the Manhattan Project. Since then, there have been twenty-one similar deaths, with seven having occurred in the United States.

The most recent were in 1999 when an accident at a Japanese enrichment facility killed two workers. A third worker survived after experiencing severe radiation sickness. I saved the newspaper with that story (prior to the deaths) with the headline "Japanese contain radioactive gas leak" emblazoned across five of six columns at the top of the front page. On the same page there was a notice "Deadly Quake Strikes Mexico/Page 7A." Oh well, I guess earthquake deaths just aren't as fashionable.

Yes, sadly some individuals have died from exposure to radiation. But it is surprising how few, and since there are so few we can account for all or nearly all of them. (This obviously doesn't count the unfortunates who were victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, almost all of whom died from blast and heat, but would very likely have died of radiation sickness had they survived the primary causes.)

It is unclear what killed the thirty-one firemen and rescue workers at the Chernobyl disaster. The graphite reactor was in flames (not possible in U.S. power reactors) and was convecting extremely radioactive materials from the core. The probably cause of the firemen's death was heat, since death by radiation generally takes several days to do its work on internal organs. But they, as in the case of the Japanese bomb victims, would very likely have died from radiation.

[I cannot allow Chernobyl to be considered in the same light as other nuclear power facilities. It was built by a Communist government with no concern for the safety of its citizens - as evidenced by the lack of a containment structure to prevent what did happen from happening - and constructed of graphite, rather than water, as a moderator in order that it could be used to produce bomb-grade plutonium. In my opinion, the firemen were murdered by a lack of responsibility on the part of the Soviet government.]