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Radiation, yes indeed.
March 20, 2011 10:09 AM   Subscribe


 
No matter how small the dose, that thing about bananas never fails to weird me out.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 10:10 AM on March 20, 2011 [10 favorites]


I'm suprised people don't freak out more about the airplane thing.
posted by Artw at 10:12 AM on March 20, 2011


This is why bananas give me a stomachache. I should cover them with lead before eating them.
posted by jb at 10:14 AM on March 20, 2011 [16 favorites]


I'm surprised anyone is still alive on the Colorado Plateau.
posted by DU at 10:17 AM on March 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


This needs to be required reading.
posted by briank at 10:18 AM on March 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Thank yoiu for this. I often counsel patients about medical radiation... either trying to reassure them if I think the test is necessary or dissuading them if I think it isn't... this chart will be helpful. Currently medical experts are claiming (based on extrapolations and population-based studies) that one chest CT in a young (e.g. teenage) patient could result in a 1/1000 lifetime risk of dying from cancer caused by the radiation from the scan... but this is theoretical, not proven.
posted by kevinsp8 at 10:22 AM on March 20, 2011


Ha, the cell phone note makes it.
posted by dmit at 10:33 AM on March 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


I was really hoping someone would put something like this together. Radiation dose units really need context, and most news reports aren't providing it. Thanks for posting.
posted by auto-correct at 10:38 AM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


He's great at making things simple for us liberal arts kids.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 10:38 AM on March 20, 2011 [17 favorites]


I think this is a valuable resource because of the ooh scary radiation: but this assumes external-body dose.

Many many more variables than this: ingestion or inhalation of radionucleides from contaminated air, soil or water is a whole other ballgame.
posted by lalochezia at 10:43 AM on March 20, 2011 [11 favorites]


Saddest recent news article quote ever: "Radiation has a half-life of 500 years."
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:48 AM on March 20, 2011 [18 favorites]


I'm all for context and perspective, not to mention stemming hysteria, but I don't get the whole "Everything's fine! The experts are taking care of it!" thread in the discourse about Japan right now. There is no "safe level" of radiation. There's also a lot we don't know about it. We're dealing with averages, and with a small amount of historical data to look at for previous outcomes.

Before this happened I minimized my flying and x-ray exposure. I generally use a wired ear piece with my cell phone. I don't think that makes me a tinfoil hat wearing moron.
posted by serazin at 10:54 AM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Like many infographics, these presents more of an illusion of simplicity and clarity than any actual simplicity or clarity. Try to use that graph to figure out the relative risk between, say, living in Colorado vs getting a mammogram.
posted by DU at 11:02 AM on March 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Great, now my wife wants to make me choose between eating a banana every other day or sleeping with her.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:03 AM on March 20, 2011 [17 favorites]


If eating a banana isn't safe, I don't know what is.
posted by kiltedtaco at 11:03 AM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Many many more variables than this: ingestion or inhalation of radionucleides from contaminated air, soil or water is a whole other ballgame

And if the material is an extra-special heavy metal mutagen all by its not-yet given up its radioactive self.
posted by rough ashlar at 11:06 AM on March 20, 2011


Do you get a smaller or larger radiation dose if you peel the banana from the bottom?
posted by FelliniBlank at 11:08 AM on March 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


There is no "safe level" of radiation

It's all relative. Consider the elevated exposure in Colorado. The relative risk is worth the substantial utility derived from human habitation of the area (living space, natural resources, skiing, etc). Or consider eating a banana: most people think the elevated risk is worth it to eat tasty, tasty fruit.

This relative safety doesn't just apply to background levels; the utility calculus continues all the way up to levels that cause acute radiation sickness and beyond. That's why the limits for workers in life-saving operations are so high.

Now, maybe the utility derived from nuclear power is not worth the risk. But that should be judged with hard data weighing the risks and rewards. It does not follow that simply because all radiation increases risks that no use of radiation or nuclear power is worth it.
posted by jedicus at 11:15 AM on March 20, 2011 [13 favorites]




is this the wrasslin' thread?
posted by mwhybark at 11:18 AM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is no "safe level" of radiation. There's also a lot we don't know about it.

I don't think you're a tinfoil hat wearing moron, but you could replace "radiation" with a lot of things in that sentence (pork, sucralose, sun exposure) and it would make as much sense. Surely you think handling smoke detectors is safe?
posted by demiurge at 11:19 AM on March 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


The chart says the radiation dose limit for someone working in a reactor area is 50 mSieverts. It's been a long time since I worked around a reactor, but I thought there were different limits for men and women (ovaries being rather more sensitive to the cumulative exposure.)

Anyone know if this has been done away with?

There is no "safe level" of radiation

Statistically speaking, yes there is. Bananas contain potassium which contains three naturally occuring isotopes one of which Potassium 40 occurs in rather large amounts - even higher than Carbon 14. Eating a banana, or swimming in sea water exposes you to this "background" radiation. Both are statistically speaking entirely "safe" in that eating a banana increases your cancer risk to the level of being struck by a meteorite.
posted by three blind mice at 11:27 AM on March 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


Surely you think handling smoke detectors is safe?

Alpha emitters are effectively blocked by a piece of paper. Handle it? No problem. Break it open and eat the Americium? Not wise.
posted by three blind mice at 11:31 AM on March 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


eating a banana increases your cancer risk to the level of being struck by a meteorite

and yet they seem so different
posted by found missing at 11:33 AM on March 20, 2011 [15 favorites]


Well I didn't pull the "no safe level" thing out of my butt; see here, here, and here. I understand the concept of relative risk, however, each human reacts differently to every given stimulus so we're talking statistical risk here, not individual, actual risk.

I hope I haven't turned this into a back and forth about this issue. I wanted to express my surprise by the dominant discourse about this - outside of Fox news or whatnot. I think it's fine there are some discussion from the "it's no big deal" perspective, but I'm surprised there hasn't been more yet from another perspective. I imagine it will come though.
posted by serazin at 11:37 AM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


What others have said. Much as I love XKCD, all this says is that if you're not standing right next to the plant when it fails, then external radiation isn't going to be what kills you. It has nothing to say about the real health risks of a catastrophic nuclear plant failure -- radioactive contaminants in the air, food and water being inhaled or ingested through the food chain. I've heard it said that there would have been far fewer cancers and deaths in Europe if they had banned the milk and meat from livestock grazed on pasture land exposed to the greatest amount of fallout.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:40 AM on March 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


ingestion or inhalation of radionucleides from contaminated air, soil or water is a whole other ballgame.

Exactly. For example I've heard people sneaking into the Chernobyl zone and stealing metal which is sold as scrap and finds its way into the world market. Or those Japan reactors blowing radiation out to sea, will end up in the food system, fish travel the world. Radiation gets spread world-wide with enough time, cancer rates go up, but impossible to prove the cause.
posted by stbalbach at 11:41 AM on March 20, 2011


Alpha particles can be blocked by the dead skin on you... once they get inside you there are problems.

Actually there have been some studies indicating that very low level radiation can decrease the risk of cancer, but there has not been much work in the field. When I did my radiation training last summer there was a note that most of the information in it was extrapolated from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as they didn't have much other data. I'm betting that the US military won't let people examine the soldiers they irradiated (and there are so many other things soldiers are exposed to that cause health problems that I'm not sure it would be useful anyway) and outside of the military there just are not that many people that get exposed.

And even if you tell people it will reduce there risk of cancer there are not that many people who will let you irradiate them.
posted by Canageek at 11:42 AM on March 20, 2011


My father used to work with radioactive substances, and people would sometimes be shocked by this because it sounded so dangerous. He would explain the risk by saying, "It's like if someone sends you a check for thirty-five cents every month, and they send me a check for six dollars. Yes, my check is many times bigger than yours, but it's still a trivial amount of money."
posted by Toothless Willy at 11:49 AM on March 20, 2011 [14 favorites]


The chart has some odd break points, and some inaccurate read-acrosses. Just to focus on the most striking of them, Chernobyl is all alone in yellow even though 50 Sv is clearly within an order of magnitude of the top item in the red section, 8 Sv, fatal dose, even with treatment.

I know Chernobyl is alone at the top of the nuclear accident chart, but surely those two belong together? Both are unarguably into the fatal range. Why those break points? Why not just group μSv-, mSv- and Sv-level exposures together?

Most seriously, the mini box in next to Chernobyl implies that the red blocks in it are to scale with Chernobyl. They're not. The bottom left quadrant, the 8 Sv dose, is way smaller than eight of the 1 Sv blocks that make up Chernobyl. You can see that by eye (and bear in mind the compressed whitespace in the red blocks).

Are the colours significant? Surely they are? I read this (and this is supposition, I apologise for jumping to conclusions) as:
Blue: You'd be foolish to worry about these
Green: Worth considering but still safe (although why the house one's there rather than blue..)
Red: Properly dangerous (although see the top right hand corner pair)
Yellow: That one-off sui-generis thing that this Japanese crisis isn't

I love the xkcd guy and his cartoons, but this feels like it has messages in it, probably not consciously. It feels like a reaction to the (admittedly shocking) science confusion on the TV, that he's done something that's billed as neutral but with hidden value judgements.

Also, why no exposure to Hiroshima/Nagasaki or Bikini Atoll tests in there for comparison? Seems odd to have a chart that includes bananas and not actual use of actual nuclear weapons.
posted by imperium at 11:49 AM on March 20, 2011 [9 favorites]


I grew up on the Colorado Plateau, and eat a lot of bananas, so I'm amazed I'm actually still alive.

The Colorado Plateau thing is not only about high elevation -- it's also that the northern part of the plateau is the source of much of the United States' natural sources of uranium, radium, and vanadium. Not included in the phrase "naturally occurring" are the radiation levels in many towns in western Colorado and eastern Utah from buried uranium mill tailings, plus the fact that one of the major uranium-mining towns in the area, Uravan, had to be abandoned and became a Superfund site.
posted by heurtebise at 11:52 AM on March 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'd like to highlight the attribution to "Ellen, a friend of mine who’s a student at Reed and Senior Reactor Operator at the Reed Research Reactor". Reed's a tiny little liberal arts college in Portland and it surprises everyone when they learn it has a nuclear reactor. A very small one, and old, and pretty safe, but still an odd thing for a school that's better known for requiring incoming freshmen to read The Iliad. Such a lovely blue glow.
posted by Nelson at 11:59 AM on March 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


What this has taught me is that some people cannot rationally think about radiation dangers, and never will be able to. For example, this statement

I've heard it said that there would have been far fewer cancers and deaths in Europe

I've heard it said? "Far fewer"? Is that three dead instead of one, or 3000 dead instead of 1500, or?

Life is a series of trade-offs. You have to weigh the relative dangers versus the benefits. People do this very poorly; they would rather die or go bankrupt in the US, for example, than pay a bit more in taxes for universal health care. Or they would rather intensively, probably permanently, pollute areas like the tar sands, the Appalachians, and now where they drill for natural gas to get the realistic alternatives to nuclear out of the ground--and then pollute the air around the world by burning it for power. Or they get into the death machine called a car to go to work 20 miles from their home every day because they wanted a bigger house with a radon-filled basement out in the burbs to raise their family.

I'm disappointed we aren't pursuing solar and wind and what-not more intently, but they are not going to play a big part in our near-future energy solution. I'm disappointed totalitarian regimes build shitty designs like Chernobyl, and I'm disappointed outdated designs like the Japanese plants continue running when there seem to be better, safer designs out there. I'm disappointed no one has the cojones to say "all radioactive waste will be disposed of here" rather than letting it accumulate on-site. But that's people for you.
posted by maxwelton at 12:11 PM on March 20, 2011 [12 favorites]


Yeah, not sure about the graphic design here.

* Area is used rather than length, which to my eye reads differently.
* Odd choices about where measures are given, as imperium points out.

But fundamentally this blows up the things that are unimportant, which is exactly the OPPOSITE of the intention of the graph (I think). For example, the Fukushima dose is the same size or bigger than the Chernobyl dose graphically.

I think that a straight representation on the same scale is better:
Fukushima dosages compared to other dosages in a bar chart.

But I think less is even more in this argument, especially if you change "Lowest one-year dose clearly linked to increased cancer risk" to "What you need to get to increase your risk of cancer" - feel free to argue this is naughty:
Fukushima dosage compared to safe level and normal background level.

(Note that I haven't checked ANY of the figures here, I've just graphed them from the XKCD image.)
posted by alasdair at 12:18 PM on March 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


Next time I want to get rid of someone I'm going to put a bunch of bananas in their bed while they're sleeping.
posted by kiltedtaco at 12:25 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


What this has taught me is that some people cannot rationally think about radiation dangers, and never will be able to.

I recently heard from a couple who canceled their Alaskan cruise vacation that they'd been planning for years because they were afraid of radiation poisoning from the reactors in Japan.
posted by odinsdream at 12:27 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm all for context and perspective, not to mention stemming hysteria, but I don't get the whole "Everything's fine! The experts are taking care of it!" thread in the discourse about Japan right now. There is no "safe level" of radiation. There's also a lot we don't know about it. We're dealing with averages, and with a small amount of historical data to look at for previous outcomes.

Your comment about there being no 'safe' level of radiation has zero perspective and actually encourages hysteria. Safe does not equal acceptable. Technically, there is no 'safe' exposure to lead, DEET, mercury, and many other toxic substances because by definition those substances are toxic. There's a lot we don't know about long-term exposure to fluorescent lighting, or cell phones, or the Baconator, but we generally don't fear monger about it. Why is it okay in this case?

Fanning the flames of the media's absolute scaremongering frenzy on this particular topic isn't helping anyone. Running in circles shouting "Nuclear is bad!" definitely isn't helping anyone. I've seen some of the 'yellowest' journalism in my entire life over the last two weeks. I'm not trying to say that it's harmless, but like others have said up thread, it's a matter of degree. Vastly more people have died over the same time frame due to coal, oil, and natural gas accidents than from nuclear. How many people do you think died at the Chernobyl accident?

In addition, the entire subject has been poisoned over the last 50 or so years so badly that we use these words that we vaguely understand to describe everyday events. "I'm having a meltdown!" "We're using the nuclear option." Shit, look at something as innocuous as comic books. I've had more than one acquaintance seriously ask me if this is going to result in a bunch of Japanese "Super-heroes".

All that being said, my heart goes out to the people whose lives have been shattered by this disaster, rebuilding after the earthquake/tsunami is going to be incredibly difficult.
posted by Sphinx at 12:29 PM on March 20, 2011 [34 favorites]


A cellphone's transmitter does not produce ionizing radiation and does not cause cancer.

The first of those assertions is a fact. The second seems very likely to be a fact but has not yet been absolutely established as such: there are still some legitimate concerns. It's a little naughty of Mr. XKCD to juxtapose these two statements as if they were equally certain.
posted by Decani at 12:36 PM on March 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've had more than one acquaintance seriously ask me if this is going to result in a bunch of Japanese "Super-heroes".
posted by Sphinx at 12:29 PM on March 20


Which of your acquaintances asked you this? Was it The Shoveler, or The Blue Raja?
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:37 PM on March 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


What specifically in what I said "fans the flames of hysteria"? I'm quoting from mainstream sources like the US government when I say there's no safe level of radiation.

And why should I buy into a false dichotomy that if we don't have coal, me must choose nuclear? There are other models. Besides, to me it's a joke that we can think we can go on consuming the amount of energy we do under any energy source.
posted by serazin at 12:39 PM on March 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


alasdair writes "But fundamentally this blows up the things that are unimportant, which is exactly the OPPOSITE of the intention of the graph (I think). For example, the Fukushima dose is the same size or bigger than the Chernobyl dose graphically. "

There are four orders of magnitude between Fukushima and Chernobyl. As your bar chart shows where Chernobyl sets the bar length the Fukushima dose is probably limited by the size of the pixels on your screen.

I don't know how much xkcd appeals to people outside of the geek end of the spectrum. A chart that sets things off in this way is very understandable to that audience. Outside of that audience I think even the washless masses can understand "Here is a common thing you don't worry about. Here is an unusual thing that you are worrying about that poses less risk than the thing you don't worry about."
posted by Mitheral at 12:43 PM on March 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hmm, banana or sleep next to two people. Hmmmm.
posted by Aquaman at 12:51 PM on March 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


there's no safe level of radiation

Here's the problem: it's also 100% accurate to say that there's no safe way to drive a car, no safe way to walk down a street, no safe way to travel in a public place, no safe way to sit at home alone, no safe way to camp in the woods, et cetera. During all of these activities YOU MIGHT DIE. But even though that is true for all of these, and some of these are far more dangerous than almost all common forms of contact with radiation, we don't say "there is no safe way to walk down the street". But when it comes to radiation, we throw away every bit of knowledge about its effects that we have and claim "there is no safe level of radiation".

Now there is medical research that shows that there is no threshold level of radiation damage, which commonly gets misinterpreted as "no safe level". The difference can be shown with the car analogy: no matter how much I drive my car, the danger is not the cumulative effects, its in the possibility of a single bad accident. There is a threshold to the safety of driving (the threshold is having an accident), below which driving has no effect on me. I'm exactly the same getting out of my car as I was getting out.

When researchers say that radiation does not have a threshold, they're saying it does not work like a car, and that the all of the radiation exposure that one experiences adds up. I could eat bananas constantly for years, and eventually it might add up to some statistically higher chance of experiencing effects from the radiation because there is not a threshold to radiation damage. This is not the same as "there is no safe level of radiation". A "safe" level of radiation is one where the total exposure one experiences cannot add up to a value that would cause detrimental effects. One dental x-ray every year is a safe level, because even after a lifetime of x-rays, the total exposure from dentist visits is going to be drastically less than the radiation you are exposed to from natural sources. In laboratories with radioactive materials, your exposure might be limited to one hour, in an environment with a specified radiation level, per week. Again this is designed so that even if you access that environment at the maximum rate permitted, the effects will not add up to anything significant.

This is how radiation safety works. It's not about people on tv arguing that radiation is "safe" or "unsafe". It's about controlling exposure. We know that there is no threshold, but we know how to limit exposure in a way that is safe for the public and for workers. Claims that ignore basic facts of relative safety, or are phrased in such a way as to exaggerate the danger, are correctly regarded as either uninformed or fear-mongering.
posted by kiltedtaco at 1:16 PM on March 20, 2011 [46 favorites]


And why should I buy into a false dichotomy that if we don't have coal, me must choose nuclear? There are other models.

That link doesn't actually say anything about "other models", it's just an overview of the rather generic term "renewable energy sources" in Europe. How do you plan on keeping the lights on at night, exactly? Because nothing in that link gives you a viable alternative to coal or nuclear.
posted by inparticularity at 1:25 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


there is no threshold level of radiation damage

OK, I'm fine with using this more precise construction. I just don't think we have the evidence to say, "We know how to limit exposure in a way that is safe for the public and for workers." at least when you're talking about real-world scenarios not theoretical ones.
posted by serazin at 1:29 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


But that should be judged with hard data weighing the risks and rewards.

The problem is that calculation never includes the data where the events leading up to catastrophe are almost always a result of systemic corruption on the part of nuclear operators (whether public or private).

Perhaps what XKCD could do is put in a chart that correlates dosage events with some measure of human culpability, maybe a UN-like measure of corruption, which would help further put exposure data into context.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:32 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Mr. xkcd = Randall Munroe. Just because I'm tired of reading that particular phrase.
posted by edbles at 1:46 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The chart ought to have the shoe-fitting fluoroscope, which was used in many department stores in the 1930s-1940s. About 30 seconds of use would put it way down there in the red group, the one that has all the radiation poisoning examples.

There's an interesting thread about it here... example from one of the comments:
Many times when I as a kid, and friends were walking around downtown in Green Bay we would pass the time by looking thru these things and wiggling our toes. We would play around and have "fun" till the store personell would chase us away, then it was on to the next one.
posted by crapmatic at 1:54 PM on March 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


This has reminded me of a story my old chemistry teach told us. Her father was also a chemist, and to prevent people from constantly stealing roses from his garden, posted the sign "radioactive roses" in his flower bed. Since every thing is radioactive, he reasoned, the statement was technically true.

It worked, people stopped taking the roses.

Then he was told to remove the sign.
posted by kisch mokusch at 2:03 PM on March 20, 2011 [12 favorites]


serazin: "I just don't think we have the evidence to say, "We know how to limit exposure in a way that is safe for the public and for workers.""

And, you'd be wrong. There are whole disciplines working on this subject. See here, or maybe here.

That's not to say that scientists always know what they're talking about, or that they can avoid acting like humans, but you can't claim that they haven't done their homework.
posted by sneebler at 2:04 PM on March 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Backup mirror here: http://reactor-core.org/xkcd-radiation-dose-chart.html
posted by Ted Walther at 2:11 PM on March 20, 2011


all of the radiation exposure that one experiences adds up

Is there very much proof for that assertion? Thinking about the mechanisms by which radiation causes cancer, I can think of several reasons why long-term exposure to low levels of radiation would be preferable to a single large dose. (Consunption of bioaccumulative radioisotopes notwithstanding)

Anne Coulter's "radiation is good for you" schtick also may have a grain of truth to it. There have been murmurings for years that rad workers are statistically healthier than the population at large, for reasons that cannot be explained by other factors. Similarly, cancer rates among people living in the Chernobyl exclusion zone (who were not exposed to the initial accident) are lower than anybody expected.

Of course, doing any sort of proper scientific analysis of this would be stupendously unethical.
posted by schmod at 2:21 PM on March 20, 2011


I love when people see this information, and immediately swear off flying and drinking Coors, hilarious stupidity.
posted by karmiolz at 2:31 PM on March 20, 2011


Is there very much proof for that assertion?

There have been several studies on the linear model assumed for risk incurred from exposure. Here a recent paper and here is another relatively recent review. Linearity of effect, or cumulative dosage, is assumed except at very high or very low dosages.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:32 PM on March 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Thinking about the mechanisms by which radiation causes cancer, I can think of several reasons why long-term exposure to low levels of radiation would be preferable to a single large dose

It is. The XKCD chart even mentions this.

rad workers are statistically healthier than the population at large, for reasons that cannot be explained by other factors

The theory I've read is that people who know they've been exposed to some radiation are more likely to get checkups and treat cancer risk seriously, and so they're more likely to get early treatment for the cancers they would have gotten anyway (outweighing the statistical excess cancer rate from the radiation exposure). Have researchers managed to control for this and still see the effect?
posted by hattifattener at 2:33 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Omigod we're all gonna die aren't we?
posted by monospace at 2:42 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes, yes we are.
posted by hattifattener at 2:44 PM on March 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


Omigod we're all gonna die aren't we?

One of the best Onion articles ever: World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100%
posted by Sphinx at 2:48 PM on March 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


rad workers are statistically healthier than the population at large, for reasons that cannot be explained by other factors

Rad workers are probably measureably more intelligent, and certainly better educated, than your average person. Moreover, they're certainly better paid. This means they exercise, get check ups, eat better, don't smoke, drive safer, etc, etc. All things that have nothing to do with the radiation.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:58 PM on March 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


I can foresee the words "Bananas" and "Cancer" used in some fashion in future headlines for the Daily Express.
posted by panboi at 3:05 PM on March 20, 2011


Exactly Cool Papa Bell, great name by the way. The fear of radiation isn't proportional considering the actual health effects.
posted by karmiolz at 3:05 PM on March 20, 2011


generally use a wired ear piece with my cell phone.

One of these?
posted by floam at 3:09 PM on March 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Sorry, I read "wired" as "weird". I suck... :(
posted by floam at 3:11 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is a great tool in my ongoing lonely sojourn as a pro-nuclear power liberal environmentalist swimming in the sea of OMG. I've had good friends call me "right wing" for pointing out things like the fact that electric cars are essentially powered by coal and gas produced by hydraulic fracturing, and that Three Mile Island was not a "disaster," "catastrophe," or a harbinger of the evil, evil unforgivable evil of nuclear power. The hysteria is just so deeply ingrained that no amount of science, no matter how independently verifiable, will do.

Oddly, I started out fully immersed in nucleophobia. We took a field trip to Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, watched a film about the happy atom, and then the tour guide used a Geiger counter to show us that bananas and green tiles emitted radiation. I wouldn't eat bananas for years, and the green linoleum in the kitchen (a distinct thing from green glazed ceramic tiles) worried me to the point where I made sure to run through the kitchen with as few steps as possible and sit at dinner with my feet propped up under the table. When I had to do the dishes, I'd usually get in trouble.

"Joe-B, what are you doing?"

"The dishes."

"No, I mean, why are you standing on my cutting board?"

"Radiation."

"I don't want you standing on my cutting board."

I hopped off, my hands still foamy, put the cutting board up on the counter, and danced over to the pantry, retrieving a pair of 28oz cans of crushed tomatoes, which I stood on.

"You're going to stand on those cans now?"

"Yes."

"Because of radiation?"

"Yes."

"Hon," my mother said, turning to my dad, "we have to stop letting him go on field trips."
posted by sonascope at 3:21 PM on March 20, 2011 [17 favorites]


"It has nothing to say about the real health risks of a catastrophic nuclear plant failure -- radioactive contaminants in the air, food and water being inhaled or ingested through the food chain."

Does this occur in nuke plant areas without failure?
posted by stratastar at 3:22 PM on March 20, 2011


I'm disappointed we aren't pursuing solar and wind and what-not more intently, but they are not going to play a big part in our near-future energy solution.

People say things like this all the time is this sort of informed sounding sort of way, and I held off when I saw it in some of the rawer Japanese meltdown threads, but I'm going to ask it here:

Given that the absolute best pre-Fukushima case for a nuclear power plant commissioned in most jurisdictions tomorrow - I mean literally tomorrow, as if that were possible - is that it would begin pumping energy to the grid sometime between 2021 and 2026, and given that Germany added slightly more than a Fukushima II plant's worth of solar to its grid in the first eight months of 2010 (ca. 4.8GW in German solar v. 4.4GW in the four Fukushima reactors), and given moreover that Germany intends to add somewhere between 2 & 3 Fukushimas worth of offshore wind by 2020, what the hell do we mean by near-future in this context?

That link doesn't actually say anything about "other models", it's just an overview of the rather generic term "renewable energy sources" in Europe. How do you plan on keeping the lights on at night, exactly? Because nothing in that link gives you a viable alternative to coal or nuclear.

Again, this is something energy planners in renewables-heavy jurisdictions are already addressing head-on. In the German case, a test-run project linked together 36 renewable plants (wind, solar, biomass, small hydro) and ran a national grid at 1/10,000 scale 24/7/365 using nothing but renewables. This wasn't a model; these were realtime, real-world electricity flows from the generators; there are no technical limits to a purely renewably sourced grid, especially in jurisdictions like North America where there's already a lot of big hydro on the grid.)

In Denmark, meanwhile, the plan to get to 50% wind by 2025 is addressing the intermittency issue with windfarms by planning to use thousands of electric vehicles parked in garages and parking lots as a vast, distributed battery.

Are there technical and economic hurdles still to be cleared on all of this? Yes, certainly. But that remains true about hydraulic fracturing, deepwater oil drilling, and even the previous generation of nukes. And as for nuclear plants themselves, I write and report on this stuff for a living and I've still not heard an adequate rebuttal of The Economist's assertion, back in the late '90s, that "not one, anywhere in the world, makes commercial sense."
posted by gompa at 3:42 PM on March 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


no matter how much I drive my car, the danger is not the cumulative effects, its in the possibility of a single bad accident. There is a threshold to the safety of driving (the threshold is having an accident), below which driving has no effect on me. I'm exactly the same getting out of my car as I was getting out.

When researchers say that radiation does not have a threshold, they're saying it does not work like a car, and that the all of the radiation exposure that one experiences adds up


Isn't this the same with radiation, though? Right up until the day that a particle smashes through your DNA in just the oh-so-perfect way so as to morph it into a neverending cancer cell, the radiation hasn't really hurt you, correct? Just like a car accident. Your risk adds up the same way your risk adds up the more your drive. On this thought, it would be a bit interesting to calculate how much radiation exposure would be to be equal to the mortality risk of the average American commuting to and from work.
posted by floam at 3:43 PM on March 20, 2011


Also... I wonder what affect body mass would have on cancer from radiation. Having twice as large a footprint or more volume with more DNA to crash into must increase the odds? I did a crappy search on Google Scholar and couldn't find much.
posted by floam at 3:48 PM on March 20, 2011


Radiation is a driving force of evolution. Radiation has always been present and we evolved in its presence. Variation in the genetic code is as essential as natural selection. Someone once asked in AskMeFi, regarding cosmic radiation, "Why aren't we all mutants?". Answer: We are all mutants.
posted by neuron at 3:59 PM on March 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


From the back of my envelope:

(average daily commute 33 miles) x (1.13e-8 deaths per mile) x (250 workdays per year) = 9.3e-5 commuting deaths per year per person, x 50 years = 4.7e-3 deaths per person.

For high (acute) doses, ~0.1 eventual cancer death per person-sievert (or for gradual cumulative doses, one-half that).

4.7e-3 deaths per person / ( 0.1 death per person-sievert ) = 47 milliSieverts.

That traffic fatality rate seems high to me— 1/200 chance of any given person dying during their commute?
posted by hattifattener at 4:02 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm amazed nobody so far has mentioned adaptive response. Basically, your body gets used to increased levels of radiation when presented with a sustained dose. Evolution stepped into help a long time ago.

This is why there's still confusion over what is safe and what is not. It's very murky, like it always is at the centre of systems of edges*. So the rule followed is usually As Low As Reasonably Achievable.



*Zappa knew this....
posted by Homemade Interossiter at 4:12 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Or, here's a page with a bunch of comparison tables, including a table that has both Sieverts and car-miles.
posted by hattifattener at 4:13 PM on March 20, 2011


Remember, too, that one of the most significant sources of radiation exposure for most Americans is from the alpha particles emitted by the polonium-210 that's left on tobacco plants that are fertilized by apatite-sourced rock phosphate. That would be most commercial tobacco, btw.
posted by KathrynT at 4:27 PM on March 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


Does this occur in nuke plant areas without failure?

Sellafield
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:32 PM on March 20, 2011


Surely you think handling smoke detectors is safe?

Alpha emitters are effectively blocked by a piece of paper. Handle it? No problem. Break it open and eat the Americium? Not wise.


Nerdtrivia: The smoke detector uses alpha to operate, but Americium emits gamma as well as alpha, and the gamma can be detected some distance away from the detector. Obviously it's a trivial amount though.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:07 PM on March 20, 2011


Radiation, pfft.

What about all those damned neutrinos? Who's counting those?
posted by bwg at 5:14 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


What about all those damned neutrinos? Who's counting those?

The Japanese.
posted by odinsdream at 5:23 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


odinsdream: "What about all those damned neutrinos? Who's counting those?

The Japanese.
"

How ironic.
posted by bwg at 5:46 PM on March 20, 2011


My source for this is BP's Statistical Review of World Energy 2010.

Just to have actual numbers involved, these are 2009 figures for energy produced (in millions of tons of oil equivalent):

Oil: 3,882.1
Natural Gas: 2,653.1
Coal: 3,278.3
Nuclear Energy: 610.5
Hydroelectric: 740.3
Total: 11,164.3

Converting from MW to millions of tons equivalent gives me:
Solar: 17.3
Wind: 120.6

Certainly it's not going to be easy to expand (say) nuclear capacity by twenty times but it seems more plausible than expanding wind by almost a hundred times or solar by six hundred times.

There's way more than enough solar energy coming in, that's obvious. The question is can we build enough solar panels and transmission lines to produce 11k mtoe. The 2008-2009 growth rate was 59% which would take ten or eleven years to get to the right range. I'm personally supremely skeptical that that growth rate is sustainable over that time period. A 20% growth rate gives something like ~30 years to get to world-energy levels and that's not accounting for growth in consumption over that time period.

Hydro is the only other renewable source that's even in the right order of magnitude today and of course there are real ecological impacts to even well-done hydro even discounting the six-figure casualty counts of a potential Banqiao. That's assuming that we've only dammed one fifteenth of the suitable rivers worldwide and I have no idea how to determine even an unreasonable facsimile of that number.
posted by Skorgu at 6:20 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


One thing I'm a bit guilty of is constantly spouting off the numbers of people killed by coal and whatnot without taking into account how much energy we actually get from these different sources. There are a whole lot more coal plants than nuclear.

So to complement Skorgu's numbers, here's a table with the deaths per terawatt-hour for a range of different energy sources (sourced from a not very authoritve-looking blog, unfortuantely. I'd love to find a better analysis looking at the whole picture.):
Energy Source                      Death Rate (deaths per TWh)
Coal – world average               161 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
Coal – China                       278
Coal – USA                          15
Oil                                 36  (36% of world energy)
Natural Gas                          4  (21% of world energy)
Biofuel/Biomass                     12
Peat                                12
Solar (rooftop)                      0.44 (less than 0.1% of world energy)
Wind                                 0.15 (less than 1% of world energy)
Hydro                                0.10 (europe death rate, 2.2% of world energy)
Hydro - world including Banqiao)     1.4  (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
Nuclear                              0.04 (5.9% of world energy)

posted by floam at 6:57 PM on March 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


So why does bananas got radiation?
posted by Flashman at 7:39 PM on March 20, 2011


I just don't think we have the evidence to say, "We know how to limit exposure in a way that is safe for the public and for workers." at least when you're talking about real-world scenarios not theoretical ones.

This is wrong. We may not know everything that will keep radiation (and its effects) at bay, but we do know quite a bit. Iodine tablets--used correctly--decrease risk. Avoiding foods that contain increased radiation decreases risk. If the 6,000 or so people around Chernobyl who later contracted cancer had been directed to follow these two simple steps, they likely wouldn't have contracted cancer.

You are throwing your hands in the air and saying "there's nothing to be done! We're screwed!" It doesn't help things.
posted by zardoz at 7:47 PM on March 20, 2011


Rad workers are probably measureably more intelligent, and certainly better educated, than your average person. Moreover, they're certainly better paid. This means they exercise, get check ups, eat better, don't smoke, drive safer, etc, etc. All things that have nothing to do with the radiation.
You forgot to mention more attractive too. It's that healthy glow we have.

I worked offshore as a logging engineer with some seriously powerful radioactive sources for over 6 years. We take radiation very seriously, wear dosimeters, check the source/shield and surrounding area during source transfers. In all that time, no badge ever came back with a dose beyond background natural radiation. We had a few false positives because somebody put their badge in their hold luggage and it got X-rayed, but nothing from the source. It's a matter of time, distance and shielding; if you are sensible and methodical about the processes, then no issues. I'm all for more education on the subject as the fear mongering in the media does nothing to advance the conversation.

And I still eat bananas.
posted by arcticseal at 8:20 PM on March 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


gompa: Germany added slightly more than a Fukushima II plant's worth of solar to its grid in the first eight months of 2010 (ca. 4.8GW in German solar v. 4.4GW in the four Fukushima reactors), and given moreover that Germany intends to add somewhere between 2 & 3 Fukushimas worth of offshore wind by 2020, what the hell do we mean by near-future in this context?

You are omitting the concept of "capacity factor" in your figures. Germany may have added 4.8 GW of installed solar capacity, but at an average capacity factor of less than 15%, those plants are really only producing a tenth as much. Wind usually does a bit better, with a capacity factor of closer to 30%. Nuclear plants average 80-90%

Forgetting whether you solve the (very difficult) intermittancy problem with electric car batteries, or (more likely) with backup natural gas plants, Wind and Solar still need 2-5 times as much installed capacity to generate the same amount of power as Nuclear. Given that Solar PV costs more to build as a nuclear plant per GW*, you can imagine how much more you'd have to pay for electricity if we were going to replace Nuclear with Solar.

*currently, but these prices keep dropping. Wind is getting to be pretty close to nuclear on a "levelized cost per GW generated" measure (depending on who's calculating) if you don't count the cost of a national battery network, or gas peaking plants we need if we're going to rely on intermittent sources to keep the lights on..
posted by Popular Ethics at 8:29 PM on March 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


So why does bananas got radiation?

As 3bm mentioned, one of the three naturally occurring isotopes of potassium is radioactive, and bananas contain a lot of potassium. IIRC this is also where the dose from "sleeping next to another human" comes from. Much of the heat of the Earth's core comes from the decay of this same potassium isotope, as well. Which means we can actually blame plate tectonics, and therefore the Sendai earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima diasaster on bananas

posted by hattifattener at 8:58 PM on March 20, 2011


Nevermind the Colorado plateau, what's the radiation level on the Plateau of Leng?
posted by exlotuseater at 10:15 PM on March 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


exlotuseater: "Nevermind the Colorado plateau, what's the radiation level on the Plateau of Leng"

Indescribable.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:47 PM on March 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


For the UK you can work out the balance of energy generation mechanisms with this online energy generation and consumption calculator. Via Sustainable Energy - without the hot air.
posted by alasdair at 11:52 PM on March 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised that no one has mentioned that the Linear No-Threshold model is a little controversial. Setting aside Anne Coulter's craziness, it may be the case that low level exposures have no effect on cancer rates because of our bodies' DNA repair mechanisms.
posted by joegester at 4:59 AM on March 21, 2011


Mr. xkcd = Randall Munroe. Just because I'm tired of reading that particular phrase.
posted by edbles at 9:46 PM on March 20


If Mr. Munroe bothered to make his name clear on or under his cartoons, perhaps he wouldn't so frequently be referred to as "Mr. XKCD" - especially by people like me who think he's not nearly as clever as either he or his fans think he is.
posted by Decani at 6:16 AM on March 21, 2011


... clear on or under his cartoons ...

... like he did on this one?
posted by lodurr at 10:34 AM on March 21, 2011


One of the jobs I have (when not finishing up my thesis) is notetaking in university classes for students with learning disabilities. The subject of radiation came up in one of the biology classes when a student brought up the 'no dose is a good dose' argument. The prof basically said that this is technically true in the sense that any amount of radiation has the ability to go in and mess about with the DNA (in addition to doing other things, but this was his focus at the time).

However, evolution being evolution, and background radiation having been around for a rather long time, the body has systems to fix DNA damage since this is obviously evolutionarily advantageous. Moreover, these systems function exactly how they're supposed to function the vast majority of the time. However, since nothing is infallible, it is exactly the one or two times that the system fails to function properly that leads us to problems, and presumably this is why increasingly higher doses of radiation are dangerous - they increase the probability that the system will not work in a particular instance and lead to uncorrected DNA damage. I would also assume at some point you probably also get to a point where the damage becomes catastrophic and these functions are themselves impaired.

But, this aside, the take away message was basically to chill out, that under a large variety of circumstances the body is perfectly able to withstand radiation because it's been around so long that we're designed to cope with it.
posted by vckeating at 6:18 AM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Averaged over 30 years, the trend is for an annual 7 percent reduction in the dollars per watt of solar photovoltaic cells. … In the lab, researchers have achieved solar efficiencies of as high as 41 percent, an unheard of efficiency 30 years ago. Inexpensive thin-film methods have achieved laboratory efficiencies as high as 20 percent, still twice as high as most of the solar systems in deployment today. … Historically, the cost of PV modules (what we’ve been using above) is about half the total installed cost of systems. The rest of the cost is installation. Fortunately, installation costs have also dropped at a similar pace to module costs. …

The cost of solar, in the average location in the U.S., will cross the current average retail electricity price of 12 cents per kilowatt hour in around 2020, or 9 years from now. In fact, given that retail electricity prices are currently rising by a few percent per year, prices will probably cross earlier, around 2018 for the country as a whole, and as early as 2015 for the sunniest parts of America. 10 years later, in 2030, solar electricity is likely to cost half what coal electricity does today. (more)
-- Scientific American [via]

Say what you will about capitalism the prospect of getting rich is motivating in ways that doing the right thing just isn't. There's still a long way to go but this is Good News.
posted by Skorgu at 6:45 AM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


(Oh and here's a google doc of BP's report)
posted by Skorgu at 7:12 AM on March 22, 2011


To continue the derail, I've been wondering why concentrated solar isn't getting more attention.
posted by serazin at 4:15 PM on March 22, 2011


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