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Radiation In Japan Scary, Probably Not As Dangerous

Fire department officials wait for arriving residents evacuated from areas surrounding Japan's Fukushima nuclear facilities damaged in the massive earthquake, Sunday, March 13. (AP)

Fire department officials wait for residents evacuated from areas surrounding Japan's Fukushima nuclear facilities, Sunday, March 13. (AP)

As scary news reports of radiation damage in Japan crawl all over our newspapers, televisions, computer screens and radios, viewers across the world are worried about a nuclear catastrophe.

But some people who actually know a thing or two about radiation and nuclear physics have been reacting with a different emotion — more of a cringe than a shiver. People like Ellen McManis, a student at Reed College in Portland, Ore., and a senior operator at her school’s research reactor.

“No one has any context for these numbers which are coming in from Japan,” McManis said. “I was listening to people saying, ‘oh this is 20 times the normal level, this is 10 chest x-rays.’ I got asked a question on the Internet one morning, ‘is 20 microsieverts large?’”

McManis says Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster is very serious, and we still don’t know how bad it’s going to get, but most of the radiation that’s been observed in Northeast Japan and reported in the news is actually really, really tiny.

The average extra daily dose of radiation being measured in towns near Fukishima is less than half the normal background radiation.

Nevertheless, we’re talking radiation here — a deadly airborne menace that you can’t see or smell or touch, that’s measured in units you don’t understand. Any amount sounds like a lot. So, McManis turned to her friend Randall Munroe, a cartoonist with a physics degree who lives in Cambridge.

“She suggested that there needed to be a chart or something, showing people what different radiation levels meant,” Munroe said.

Easy, right? Not so much. It turned out to be a surprising challenge.

“I start just saying, ‘ok what’s the smallest thing I can plot,’ and I made a little dot for that, and I said, ‘ok now what are some larger doses of radiation people would get,’ and I would make them proportionally larger,” Munroe said. “Pretty quickly I found that it got much too big to fit on the chart.”

On the small end of that scale, you have something Munroe calls a “banana dose.”

“Bananas have potassium in them, which gives you a little bit of radiation when you eat it. And it’s so tiny, but it’s still a measurable amount of radiation,” Munroe said. “Then, way up at the other end of the scale is Chernobyl if you were standing next to the reactor when it went.”

To visualize the vast orders of magnitude across that scale, Randall came up with an incredibly elegant chart. In one box, he has a bunch of little dots representing the amount of radiation given off by some common things.

“You get about .05 microsieverts, which is one dot on the chart, by just sleeping next to someone for a night because our bodies emit natural radiation,” Munroe said.

Click to enlarge (Courtesy Randall Munroe)

Click to enlarge (Courtesy Randall Munroe)

That little dot is dwarfed by the cluster of 70 dots representing the average extra daily dose of radiation that’s being measured now in towns near the Fukishima plant in Japan. “And both of those are dwarfed by the background dose that you get anywhere in a day, which is about 10 microsieverts,” Munroe said.

That’s about 200 dots on the chart. Sounds like a lot, sure, but that’s not really so.

“All of those doses total up to the extra radiation you get if you happen to live in a stone or a brick house,” Munroe said.

And how much radiation is that? Well, it’s about 1/12 of the highest doses of radiation recorded in the area around Three Mile Island during the accident there.

“That, in turn — the worst of Three Mile Island — is about a third of a mammogram’s worth of radiation,” Munroe said. “The biggest thing on that section of the chart is the yearly dose permitted to radiation workers.”

What does it all mean? If you got the maximum dose that you’re permitted to get in any one year, along with a mammogram, a CT scan, a chest x-ray, plus you were near Three Mile Island and lived in a stone or brick house located near the Japanese reactor you’d still get less than 100 millisieverts.

That 100 millisieverts is the “lowest dose that’s clearly linked to an increased risk of cancer,” Munroe said. “There’s a chance that a little bit smaller doses than that are linked to cancer, but the data is just a little bit fuzzy.”

The bottom line, of course, is that this can all get a little bit confusing.

“I think what we take away from this is that we don’t have a good intuitive understanding of radiation and it’s easy for us to become spooked,” McManis said.

“I think what we take away from this is that we don’t have a good intuitive understanding of radiation and it’s easy for us to become spooked.”
– Ellen McManis

Considering that so few of us deal with these terms every day, radiation levels are hard to understand.

“It’s difficult for reporting in the media to convey an accurate picture to readers, listeners, or viewers as to exactly how bad something is, and that’s why charts like these help,” McManis said.

If the take-away from Munroe’s chart is that the nuclear risks in Japan aren’t actually that great, is Munroe pro-nuclear power?

“Well, I don’t want to minimize the storage problem, what to do with our nuclear waste long term,” Munroe said, “but I feel like that is an easier problem to solve than the problems inherent to coal and oil.”

McManis, who works with nuclear power, agrees.

“I’m in favor of nuclear power in as much as it’ll help us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, but it is certainly not the answer, and we certainly need to keep developing and pushing truly renewable technologies in order to have a good sustainable future on this planet,” she said.

Munroe and McManis stress that the visualization is for general education only. We ran it by some experts at MIT who told us the figures check out, though it’s worth noting that Munroe is mixing some cumulative doses with immediate doses.

Still, our experts stressed that while this little intellectual exercise is useful, we still have no idea what’s going to happen at Fukishima. There could be effects from long-term exposure that we can’t as yet foresee.

For now, though, we can understand the immediate risks a little bit better.

Other stories from this show:

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  • Michael

    Mixing cumulative doses with immediate doses is exactly where Munroe’s chart sadly falls apart. A 3.6 mSv dose over 1 day for a person 50 km from Fukushima is not small if it continues: a month of that exposure puts that person over the 100 mSv known to increase the risk of cancer. A year at 3.6 mSv per day would be over 1300 mSv.

    • Anonymous

      It is confusing to mix measurement totals from a single exposure and multiple exposure, and the chart needs to be fixed for that. I completely agree, and they should change the chart.

      But back to your analysis. First, the chart shows 3.5 as the daily numerical figure NOT 3.6. And your units are off, it’s not m/day, it u/day so your factors are off by 1000; a massive error indeed. So, using the correct figures and units, the total exposure from the Fukushima plant turns out to be ~1.3mSv.

      so if we add that to a ‘typical’ yearly exposure, of ~3.65 mSv / year, you get about 5 mSv/year. That’s about 10% the maximum yearly dosage allowed for radiation workers.

      But, while it is certainly true 3.6 uSv per day over the course of a year certainly adds up, but you also need to compare it to an average day which is also on that chart. On a normal day, you get 10 uSv per day. Let me hazard, that such exposure is less than living in the North Pole for the summer, and the South Pole for the winter. Those Polar Bears, better get the sun tan solution out!

      Now according to the radio clip, 100 mSv is the lowest dose clearly linked to cancer. So 100 mSv vs 5 mSv. So given these numbers, it seems apparent to me, that if you are scared about the additional exposure to radiation from the Fukushima plant, and and you go outside to work or play, then you behavior is very inconsistent. In summary if we are to believe these numbers, the extra exposure is nothing to worry about.

      So some criticality: How do we measure radiation? Visible sunlight is radiation, does that count? Not all radiation is the same. Is the 100 mSv quoted in the radio clip, is that a one-shot exposure or is that total exposure over a span of time?

      • Randall Munroe

        100 mSv is the lowest dose that everyone agrees is carcinogenic, but there’s a lot of research below that point and a lot of controversy — I don’t want to be too quick to dismiss the cancer risk below that. Anyone who’s gotten a CT scan has had to make some difficult decisions, and the lack of data here can be frustrating. And Michael is right — most places around the plant are getting a few µSv/day, but there were two sites getting 3.6 mSv/day, which is quite a high dose.

        Visible sunlight is radiation, but it is not ionizing radiation (it is not energetic enough to knock electrons out of their orbits and create ions), which is what sieverts measure. The sievert is a measure of ionizing radiation’s degree of impact on the body.

        The 100 mSv figure is total exposure per year. 100 mSv over a short time would probably have a bit more of an acute effect.

  • Dana Franchitto

    as usual more public relations for the nuclear industry from “public” radio. where aer hte dissenting voices from say Ralph Nader or Journalist, Karl Grossman who has been writing about nuclear issues for several decades? According to Mr. Grossman, writing in EXTRA (pub. by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) , people did,in fact, die at Three Mile Isand adn many more suffered lont term health effects. The utitlity owners there are quietly paying off those who felt the impact.So how much did the industry pay for this story?

    • Adam Ragusea

      I only get checks from WBUR, except on my birthday when I get one from my grandma.

      If you listen or read carefully, you’ll see that the Three Mile Island figured cited by Randall (and me, in turn) is for dosages measured in the 10 mile area around the plant, not inside the plant itself.

      To the broader point of your post, I would encourage you to open your mind to the possibility that a nuclear accident can be dangerous, scary, and over-hyped in the media all at the same time. I think that’s what Randall’s chart is about, and it’s what my story is about.

      That said, Randall is posting smart stuff to this thread right now, so I’ll let him speak for himself..

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Katie-Lafaw/1804511 Katie Lafaw

      I’ve been listening to public radio throughout this entire incident, and I have heard many, many things from many, many different people who all had many, many differing opinions on nuclear plants, nuclear power, and radiation. I’ve heard positives and negatives. A story’s a story. Big picture, please.

      • Dana Franchitto

        YOu may be right about some the call-in shows. But the major syndicated news shows are what I’m specifically referring to. MAybe I’ve missed something. I hope so.

    • Bdonegan

      I assume you are arguing for more public funding (less corporate funding) of public broadcasting?

      • Dana Franchitto

        only if they live up to their name “public” radio and claims of independence and objectivity which most of the time, these days they don’t

    • Ithaca49er

      Have you spoken with Oliver yet about this?

    • nukegraybeard

      I’ll have to look at Mr. Grossman’s article.  Specifically, at his citations and references.  Believe me, I was operating reactors just like TMI in March 1979, and have followed that incident, as well as thjose at Chernobyl and Fukishima-D throughout my career.  I am not aware of any deaths attributable to TMI.  But if I’m wrong, I’m certainly willing to admit it – assuming someone can show me objective, verificable facts from a reputable source that can back the claim up.

  • Edward Onessimo

    that chart is very interesting….I wonder how the radiation treatments given to cancer patients compare? Ironic how we fight cancer with something that may cause future cancers…….

    • Stephen Rindsberg

      Ironic, yes. But like everything else, it’s a trade-off. Sometimes it’s better to risk *possible* cancer later in return for the certainty that we’ll kill the already-present cancer cells *now*. Die of cancer now in order to prevent getting it later or get cured now and risk getting it later … I know which I’d choose.

  • Jason

    The Fukishima disaster is very serious but the media as usual sensationalise things beyond proportion and I think sometimes the media should be held more accountable.

  • Randall Munroe

    Hey! This is Randall; I made the chart in this story. I’m not paid by any industry; I’m just a cartoonist with a physics background, and I made this chart so that as numbers about exposure came out of Japan, we could have a quick-reference thing to help understand what they meant.

    Ellen and I were invited onto the show to talk about the chart, the effects of radiation, and the science communication aspects of it. I tried to keep my comments in the show limited to those matters, but I do want to add that I think the health of our environment is the most important issue our generation faces. I know there are serious disagreements in the environmental movement over the role nuclear power should play in our energy future, and I think it’s an important discussion for us to have. My goal here is to understand the facts the best that I can, put numbers in perspective, and then — when I get the chance — help share what I’ve learned so we can make informed decisions.

    As for Michael’s comment about the cumulative vs. short-term doses, I agree that it’s a simplification, and I talked about the difference at the top of the chart. Ellen decided, in her chart (linked from mine), to separate the two. I listed them together, but I tried to include short- and long-term doses for each order of magnitude, so that for a given exposure, you could see something similar on the chart to compare it to. I don’t think it leads to any radical misinformation. I don’t think everything in the chart is reassuring — the one-day 3.6 mSv dose reported at those two stations is pretty scary, and if it continued for a year, that’d be extremely bad. We’ll see more numbers out of Japan in the coming weeks, and I hope my chart helps people understand them — whether the facts are reassuring or not — when they do.

    • Dana Franchitto

      Randall, it’s one thing to for ‘Radio Boston to have you and Ellen on the show to state your case that’s fine. But she did make an editorial statement in favor of nuclear power. Which is fine too if Radio Boston hadhad an opposing view on that might say something like “no dose of radiation is safe however permissible”. or that might point out the indistry’s atrocious history of lack of accountability and altering safety test or review data. Okay I believe you weren’t paid by the industry but I still suspect that either WBUR or Radio Boston was bought off to air this PR piece.

      • Adam Ragusea

        Dana, here’s how this story came to be: 1) Radio Boston intern Anna Pinkert found out about Randall’s chart from a mutual friend, 2) She sent the Radio Boston producers a link with the suggestion it might make a cool story for us, 3) I pitched the idea in our Monday morning editorial meeting and Mark Navin, our executive producer, assigned me the story, 4) I interviewed Randall and Ellen, ran the numbers by two MIT profs, wrote the story, and we put it on the radio today. If any of us got paid off by the nuclear power industry somewhere in there, our check must still be in the mail.

        With regard to your point about balance, all I can say is that not every story can be about everything, every time. This is not a story about the pro vs. con debate over nuclear power. It’s an attempt to make the the enormous quantitative differences between various radiation exposures understandable on an intuitive level. I thought that, at the end of all that, listeners might want to know what our two experts thought about nuclear power in general. If they’d said something really provocative or unsupported, I would have balanced them out with another interview (actually, I probably just would have left the question out). But what they said seemed pretty reasonable and middle-of-the-road, so I let it stand on its own. Ellen’s statement in favor of nuclear power was hardly enthusiastic or unequivocal.

        • Dave Gerlits

          Adam – thank you for such a well thought out, focused, easy to understand, and balanced story. As a nuclear severe accident risk professional, I was delighted to hear your story. It was a breath of fresh air in a fog of half truths.

        • Dana Franchitto

          Thank you for your response Adam . I know, not everything is meant to be debated all the time but as with most of NPR , and I know this was not set up to be a debate but given the tone of the piece and lack of critical inquiry it seemed to me like de facto pro nuke. given that we never hear from the skeptics.

        • nukegraybeard

          Adam – if you are still getting feeds from this almost a year later, please accept my compliments to you, Ms. Pinket, and Mr. Navin for recognizing and running with a story that was newsworthy and not sensationalist, during a time period when most of your peers in the broadcast media were not acting so responsibly.  With your story, NPR got it right, and I thank you.  I experienced the media circus that was Three Mile Island in March of 1979 – and sadly not much seems to have been learned  in the intervening 32 years.   Hopefully you represent the next generation of broadcast journalists, ones that are not afraid to demonstrate integrity and to take the inevitable criticism from your peers for doing your job as a professional.  We need many more like the three of you.

      • http://profiles.google.com/relsqui Fizz Ellis

        If the industry paid anyone off for this piece, they should ask for their money back. That was about the least enthusiastic possible endorsement that still takes reality–the drastic harm already being done, much faster, by other nonrenewable energy sources–into account. Is the coal industry paying for your anti-nuclear soapboxing?

        • Dana Franchitto

          Sorry to disappoint you Fizz but I don’t see that industry as any better.

      • http://people.reed.edu/~emcmanis/radiation.html Ellen McManis

        Heh, if the nuclear power industry had employed me for PR purposes I’d be out of a job right now. I support nuclear power *only* as an alternative to the current messy fossil fuels we burn right now. It’s not without its own mess, but at least we’re not spewing hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. I do emphatically mean what I said — if we don’t develop more renewable energy solutions and fast, we’re screwed. Nuclear can tide us over, but in my ideal world we would be running on power produced by wind, solar, tides, and whatever other new technologies can be developed.

        • Dana Franchitto

          Thank you Ellen,
          Are you aware of an article by Karl Grossman in EXTRA the magazine published by “fairness and Accuracy in Reporting”? In the Feb.2008 issue, he talks about the whole emissions issue. yes, operating nukes don’t emit greenhouse gases but he claims that the nuclear fuel cycle is,in fact, greenhouse gas intensive. What is your take on that?

          • nukegraybeard

            I have not seen the article you reference, but I am a veteran of almost 34 years of work in the nuclear field, and have some experience in the technology of gaseous diffusion, which is used to enrich uranium (increase the percentage of uranium atoms in a given volume) to levels that are needed to operate a typical light water reactor.  As is the case in almost all the information regarding nuclear technology, there is partial truth to the claim that the nuclear fuel cycle is greenhouse gas emmision intensive.   Specifically, the gaseous diffusion plant operating today in Paducah, Kentucky does emit an unacceptably high volume of GHG – due to the refrigerant used to cool the process (gaseous diffusion is very inefficient, ~50% of the cost goes into the heat of compression – which is irrecoverable and therefore waste heat).   The reason this continues is that the plant (built in 1952) is too old now to cost effectively change the refrigerant, and only within the last few years have more modern enrichment processes come on line in the US.  Sounds purely capitalistic, I know – but true nonetheless.  But remember that gaseous diffusion is a very outdated technology – originally developed during WW II under the Manhattan project.  I understand that newer processes, such as gaseous centrifuge enrichment) are not so GHG unfriendly.  Also, remember the reason that gaseous diffusion is not GHG friendly has nothing to do with the nuclear technology, but rather with the cooling technology that was available in 1952.  Modern cooling systems have overcome that problem.  Should a new gaseous diffusion plant be built today with modern standards for cooling systems (not that anyone would want to….:)) the GHG problem would be drastically reduced, if not elimianted due tot he advances in cooling processes.   Hope this helps.

      • Ithaca49er

        You and Oliver Stone…and so many others, looking for that conspiracy. Your “editorial statement” is noted.

        • Dana Franchitto

          conspiracy,nothing, it’s right out in the open.

  • Eric

    How much radiation exposure is attributed to coal burned in a power plant of similar distance?

  • Paul

    Great chart, answers my question “what the heck is a sievert, anyway?” Elegantly presents a complex matter in an easily comprehensible visual way, simple without oversimplifying or condescending. There is an art to this as well as science.

    An excellent example of spreading light instead of heat– we need more of this in the mediaverse.

    Also interesting that facts clearly presented can make people angry…

  • Anonymous

    A STUDENT and a CARTOONIST with a physics degree? Oh YEAH, that’s real reputable. Jesus Christ on the cross.

    • Strawbob

      And how many years have you studied physics? What’s your background in science, mathematics, and engineering? Hmmm???

      • nukegraybeard

        Well, for what its worth, I have a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Washington and have been a registered professional engineer in Washington State since 1992.  I also studied nuclear technology in the US Navy and was a the Navy equivalent of a Certified Health Physics technician for 6 years before and after the Three Mile Island accident.  Yes, I have made my living in and around nuclear energy for over 30 years, and I suppose that automatically makes me a suspect authority.  If that’s true for you, Strawbob, I can’t help you.   But from my perspective, this chart – with some minor improvements to address the differences between cumulative and acute dose as suggested by MIT – is one of the best tools I have ever seen to communicate a complex and often emotional subject to a intelligent but generally uninformed (about radiation and nuclear techology) public.  My thanks and respect to Ms. McManis and Mr. Munroe for a job well done!

    • http://people.reed.edu/~emcmanis/radiation.html Ellen McManis

      I’m a student, but I’m also an NRC-licensed Senior Reactor Operator. The exam they gave me is the exact same difficulty as the ones given at any other facility. It is that experience that I drew on in contributing to this chart.

      Besides, we were very specific that it was not to be taken as authoritative. That said, Adam ran the numbers by some MIT profs, and it checked out, caveat the timescale issue.

  • Anonymous

    Not only that, the creators of this nicely finessed bit of distraction fail to note that it is not only 25-year-old males (the standard for which radiation is measured for harmful effects) who will receive dosages. It will be children, infants, embryos, lactating women, the elderly–plus EVERY OTHER FORM OF LIFE ON THE PLANET. Fish in the ocean and birds in the air don’t know that they should exercise care in the foods they choose, nor can they purify their water or seal off their living rooms. Not only that, this disaster occurred on an island in the midst of the ocean, not in landlocked areas like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Water is a dispersant. And the radiation is STILL not contained. I don’t doubt the producers at ABC would okay a “not a problem” video, but it’s not because they have anything in mind but money from advertisers, who no doubt will buy ad time to “reassure” people that they’re safe, nice, and only concerned with the public good.

    No one’s interviewing any nuclear scientists who are anti-nuke–and they do exist as an organization that’s been around for quite some time: The Union of Concerned Scientists. No–let’s go with the student and the cartoonist!

    And don’t forget that you still have to mine uranium, refine it (which means tailings) and confine it–and we haven’t solved THOSE problems either. Sheesh.

  • Anonymous

    Technology should be dedicated to super-conservation–how to get the most out of the least amount of energy. We waste enormous amounts of energy in this country every day. And it doesn’t mean dropping living standards to Amish levels. But energy conservation would mean lower profits for coal, gas, oil, and also nuclear. So corporations do NOT want the conversation to be about conservation.

  • Anonymous

    And Randall’s chart is about radiation exposure to the skin. When you eat, drink, inhale, or otherwise ingest radiation, it’s a different matter.

    • CB

      Of course….cause radiation doesn’t go right through people. I mean everyone knows that x-rays and mammograms are useless because the density of the skin is enough to stop it. Who needs lead vests.

    • http://people.reed.edu/~emcmanis/radiation.html Ellen McManis

      That was taken into account, at least for the 50 mSv dose limit to US radiation workers. That’s the TEDE limit — Total Effective Dose Equivalent — which combines whole body (deep dose) with organ doses (committed dose) from radionuclides taken into the body, multiplied by a weighting factor based on the radiosensitivity of the organ targetted. The organ doses are computed based on the amount received by a person over the next 50 years, given the radiological and biological half-life of the nuclide.

      Radionuclides which are inhaled, eaten, or otherwise consumed can be given this treatment, and a number (in Sv) can be produced which is comparable to other values on this chart.

  • Larry S

    Great reporting. Thank you.

    People need help in quantifying the risks associated with all forms of energy production to facilitate a rational discussion of energy alternatives.

    Current new coverage about radiation exposure is in stark contrast to the lack of similar news reports of downwind concentrations of hazardous chemicals from oil refinery explosions or other large fires – let alone daily exposure rates.

    Would Randall, Adam and Ellen be interested in doing a similar chart for the concentration of carcinogenic chemicals and particulates downwind of coal fired or oil fired power plants vs. the “allowable” exposure to these chemicals and substances? (I suspect that data for concentrations of hazardous chemicals downwind of a refinery fire are not available, as it is unlikely such monitoring takes place. I hope I am wrong on that score, as the data would be extremely valuable to public health officials in tracking cancers and other illness attributable to these events.)

  • Andy T


    How about one of these comparing the annual cost of really big stuff? Start at the top with the extension of the Bush Era tax cuts at $900 billion over 2 years, on down to the wars, the bailout, down to maybe the Head Start Program for kids, presently on the chopping block?

    How about one of these showing quarterly corporate INCOME, & PROFIT vs. STANDARD INCOME TAX & TAX ACTUALLY PAID. Start with BP & Exxon $5B & $9B vs. $0.00 tax paid?

  • LaTosca

    “Fission of enriched uranium creates massive amounts of radioactive atoms of varying half-lives that are extremely rare or do not exist naturally in the environment.

    Nuclear waste has atoms such as Cesium 137 and Strontium 90 that have full potency for about 30 years. Strontium 90 can substitute for an important nutrient, Calcium, and produce Beta radiation inside the human body for years. Cesium 137 can substitute for Potassium. These two atoms alone can remain in the soil for decades and accumulate in food crops.”

    So, a very good question is “Why then, did Radio Boston publish an article on x-rays and rads from ambient radiation and compare these to the complex issues posed by the isotopes released into the air and water by nuclear waste and/or accident ?” Your article is both specious and misleading and, when served up in an entertaining, easily quotable sound bite form, deadly. The truth is as compromised as the public safety by “soft” articles like these without a rebuttal.

    Let’s hear, on air, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, who are also local ( started at MIT) who have been holding a daily telephone media briefing related to the Fukushima nuclear accident. Their blog is here: http://allthingsnuclear.org/tagged/Japan_nuclear

  • LaTosca

    As for why the nuclear industry is so distrusted? I have two words: Karen Silkwood.

    Better for the industry’s image to sweep that story under the rug. But even better, for the public to have a long memory.

    For you young’uns, here is a little history from your Auntie Tosca via wikipedia:

    Karen Gay Silkwood (2/1946 – 11/ 1974) was an American labor union activist and chemical technician at the Kerr-McGee plant near Crescent, Oklahoma, United States. Silkwood’s job was making plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. She died under mysterious circumstances after investigating claims of irregularities and wrongdoing at the Kerr-McGee plant.

    Silkwood’s father and children filed a lawsuit against Kerr-McGee on the behalf of her estate. The trial was held in 1979. The estate presented evidence that the autopsy proved Ms. Silkwood was contaminated with plutonium. The main witness for the defense was Dr. George Voelz, a top-level scientist at Los Alamos. Dr. Voelz stated that he believed the contamination was within legal standards. The defense later proposed that Ms. Silkwood was a troublemaker who may have poisoned herself.

    Following the summation arguments, Judge Frank Theis told the jury “If you find that the damage to the person or property of Karen Silkwood resulted from the operation of this plant, Kerr-McGee is liable.” The jury found Kerr-McGee liable and rendered its verdict of US $505,000 in damages and US $10,000,000 in punitive damages. On appeal, the judgment was reduced to US $5,000. In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court restored the original verdict. The suit was headed for retrial when Kerr-McGee settled out of court for $1.38 million, admitting no liability.” There is plenty more at wikipedia and other sites.

    Just sayin’ – there is way more to this nuclear power story than meets the eye. Back in the day, we called looking into this kind of complex situation ‘investigative reporting’ and it was a lynch pin of the ethics of journalism. In their tireless and sometimes dangerous search for truth, journalists were considered guardians of democracy and the public welfare. And a crucial factor for an informed citizenry.

    Back in the day. *sigh*

    Nowadays, you call advancing probing kinds of questions ‘paranoia’ and ‘conspiracy theorizing’.

    This is followed by a nice info-mercial on the relative safety of nuclear power and, voilá, everybody is happy.

    Except, Auntie Tosca.
    And many other thinking, and informed citizens.

    • pronuclear

      So, you take an incident at a facility in Oklahoma where a poorly educated individual got themselves contaminated and then the morons who ran the place tried to cover things up, and paint an entire industry with a giant, broad brush. You have zero actual proof of some of your assertions, since Wikipeida is about as useless as breasts on a bull. It’s not a vetted source and you run your mouth about “investigative reporting”? Wow

      And just to be completely honest – I work at a nuclear power plant and have been in the industry for 25+ years. 99.999% of the people are honest, hard-working individuals who are providing “green” electricity that is reliable.

  • http://people.reed.edu/~emcmanis/radiation.html Ellen McManis

    For all those who are talking about internal/external doses: They are comparable. I’ve added a section on my page ( http://people.reed.edu/~emcmanis/radiation.html ) about how that comparison is made, and linked from there the mathy bit.

  • Jasonekli

    They are finding hourly doses that make that chart look (for comparison) absurd.

    Besides, you might set aside quantifying the problem for just one minute to think about the actual problem – in fact:

    People LIVE in these radiated areas, daily; they are not simply ‘flying in a plane’ or ‘getting an x-ray’. People pass through this environment and it passes through them on a daily basis, all the time. They are inextricably linked to the health (or damage) of these places.

    Moreover, the chart information is not even correct: internal and external doses most certainly do matter, especially if we consider plutonium for a start.

  • nukegraybeard

    Does anyone on this post know of a reputable source of background radiation levels around Fukishima-D on March 10, 2012 (i.e.; the day BEFORE the earthquake and tsunami)?.   One can readily find on line multiple maps and data showing the present levels at various sampling locations around the plant.  For example, at the Litate Village (closest sampling point I could see on the map) the hourly rate was 0.17 micro-Sievert as of 12/30/2011 – when reporting was stopped because levels had stabilized.   I would be interested in knowing what the level was at Litate Village before the accident.

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