Incalculable danger.

(Welcome, Instapundit readers! Thank you, Professor.)

I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night…

…okay, that’s a lie.  But I am an expert in ionizing radiation and its effects.  This is my field.

Japan gets ~90% of its electrical power from nuke plants, and now they’re in, essentially, the “worst-case scenario”. There’s been a hydrogen explosion as well.

(Note: the same article says “About 24 percent of electricity in Japan is produced by 55 nuclear power units in 17 plants”.  Hmm. I don’t know who’s wrong, and don’t care enough to look it up.  They’ve got nukes, we’ll leave it at that.)

Did you read about us shipping “coolant” to Japan yesterday? “Coolant” is water. Highly pure water. So I don’t understand that manuever, unless American H2O is superior to Nipponese coolant. Doubtful.

Anyway, we’re seeing news like “radiation 1,000x normal“.  So just how many Japanese people will end up dying from radiation poisoning?


Okay, to be precise, the answer is “indeterminate”.  No one will die from acute exposure.  And if there’s any increase in cancer, it will be totally lost in statistical noise.

Yes, this is one of those cases where’ll I’ll bet my life against any asset you care to risk. 

Where are you reading this?  Home, office, pretentious coffee bar?  Whatever.  Just imagine that the radiation level has increased a thousandfold!  OMG!!  How much danger are you in?!

You are in incalculable danger.

It’s incalculable because radiation is still damaging your body less quickly than it heals.  We’ve addressed that here before.

If I measured the dose rate where you’re sitting, I’d see about five micro-rem per hour, give or take a micro-rem.  (rem= Roentgen Equivalent Man).

One thousand times that would be five milli-rem per hour, which just happens to be the threshold where the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) and DOE (Department of Energy) must establish a Radiation Area.  

This is serious business.  To enter it you must be an adult, have training, have a TLD (Thermoluminescent Dosimeter), have been briefed on an RWP (Radiological Work Permit), and be signed in on that RWP, which means you’ll have an EPD (electronic personal dosimeter) for real-time awareness of how much radiation you’re picking up.  And an RCT (radiological control technician {me!}) will be with you, or at least keeping tabs.

And apart from acronym poisoning, you’ll be fine.  The danger is incalculable. 

“Radiation Areas” range between 5 and 100 milli-rem per hour.  So how about the upper end?  How dangerous is 100 milli-rem per hour?  Incalculably dangerous.  

Remember, we’re now at about 20,000x the normal background.  But that’s “only” 2.4 rem per day.  You need an acute dose of around 400 rem to hit what we call the “LD 50/30” mark.  Lethal Dose 50/30.  The amount of radiation that kills  50% of people within 30 days. 

(Since we don’t test people to destruction with radiation, most of our data on lethality came from Japanese victims and survivors of Fat Man and Little Boy.  Chernobyl refined that understanding just a bit.)

In my quarter-century career I’ve picked up eight rem of occupational exposure.  A (northern lattitude) flight attendant would have about sixteen.  If you stayed in the hottest possible Radiation Area for 30 days you’d pick up 72 rem.  What happens when someone picks up nine times my 25-year dose …in only thirty days?!

Now we’re only probably incalculable.  If we did laboratory-grade bloodwork on you, gave you 72 rem over 30 days, then checked again, we might see the slightest possible depression in your white blood cell count.  But I doubt it.

And it would be swamped by any other variable, such as you having a slight cold or eating a habanero pepper.  Okay, I’m not sure about the heat, but I am the cold.

We assume elevated chronic exposure to radiation is harmful.  But even that’s not for sure.  Our descendants may shake their heads at our stupidity in avoiding chronic  radiation.  Just as we “tsk” olde-time doctors for putting leeches on hemophiliacs.    

The last I bothered to check, we assume every rem of radiation takes an average of one day off a person’s lifespan.  But it’s just as likely to be the reverse.  Seriously.    

Hopefully this puts the radiation hazard in perspective.

I don’t know how bad the Japanese nuke situation will get, but it won’t be a Chernobyl.  The Soviets were moderating neutrons with a graphite infrastructure.  That works wonderfully…until you set it on fire.  (As our mordant joke goes, “never burn coal in a nuke plant.”)

My prayers go out to Nippon and its people.  But the only serious radiological threat they face?  Gojira.

UPDATE–Yes, I use “rem” and “rad” and “dpm“, not “Sievert” and “Gray” and “Becquerel“.  Suck it, Eurowussies!

And thanks for the link, Jonah!

Plus Dr. Jerry Pournelle, one of science fiction’s greatest writers! In medical treatment Dr. Pournelle received a localized dose of 50,000 rad (which equals rem for x-rays). As a “whole body” dose that’s enough to kill someone a hundred times over. In the Doctor’s case, it preserved his life.

About wormme

I've accepted that all of you are socially superior to me. But no pretending that any of you are rational.
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98 Responses to Incalculable danger.

  1. Pingback: So, Are We Talking “ZOMG MELTDOWN!” or What?

  2. Billy says:

    The worse fall out from this will be a reluctance to build more nuke plants in the US – not that they’ve been popping up every year…. but you know any re-attempt to start building them again like we should will b e hit with “what about Japan… do you want that here”. From what I’ve read the modern nuke plants could be soooo much better than what we have today for sooo many reasons. WORM, do you agree? For the record, I was a no-nuke fool in my teens. Not any more.

    • wormme says:

      Today’s reactors were all designed back when a supercomputer was about equivalent to today’s wristwatch. The same type of plant could be built with a fifth of the system components. Lots less unwanted activation and rad waste.

      Plus there’s things like the “gumball” design. The reactor bed is a multitude of ceramic balls containing fuel and neutron moderators. Even with total coolant loss, the ceramic doesn’t melt down. There are several of these types of “inherently safe” reactors we could make.

      Since electricity is mostly from coal, electric cars still contribute to CO2 production. Nukes are about the only energy source that can grow the economy and lower CO2.

  3. DensityDuck says:

    Indeed, if someone said “what about Japan, do you want that here?” I’d say “you mean where dozens of nuclear plants got hit by the fifth-largest earthquake in history and the worst problem was that one of the plants had to shut down for a while? Sure, I’d love to have that here!”

    • wormme says:

      Yeah, assuming it plays out with the core materials not escaping, this should be a P.R. coup for nuke power. “Just keep local quake intensities below 9 and you’ll be fine! And if you can’t do that…consider moving, nukes or not.”

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  7. Matt Gossman says:

    I served five years on an American nuclear submarine. These reactors are run by 19-20 year-olds with about a year and a half two of training. There has never been a radiological incident about a US Navy ship (the Soviets had some, but like Chernobyl it was mainly due to trying things that should not have been tried, like liquid metal cooled reactors). I’m not at liberty to say what my exposure levels were, but somewhat less than standing in the sun for a few hours at the beach.

    Thanks to Wormme for throwing some light on the subject.

    • wormme says:

      Thanks for commenting. And of course for your service!

      I’ve never worked a nuke plant or DOE site without some of my co-workers being Navy nukers. Apart from the rare officer-turned-upper management a-hole, every single Navy vet has been a pleasure to work with.

  8. Cory Franklin says:

    Maybe I don’t understand- but isn’t the sunburn analogy flawed?
    Sunburn is UV light, it causes genetic mutation at a far lower rate and severity than ionizing radiation, doesn’t it? So isn’t the nature of injury versus repair a different matter? A genetic mutation is not strictly repairable unlike a layer of dermis if it occurs, is it?
    Am I missing something?

    • wormme says:

      That is an excellent question and no, you’re not missing a thing. The analogy was solely to illustrate the nature of acute damage, which is what the P.R. lady addressed. Ionizing radiation can and does cause damage at the genetic level.

      We don’t what the threshold for causing cancer is, so we assume there isn’t one. I.E. “radiation bad”. But people in Denver pick up twice as much as most other Americans. Flight attendants can pick up twice what Denver residents get. And a single medical uptake will dose you more in a day than is permitted occupationally for a year. Or decade.

      Incidence of increased cancer in those groups? Non-detectable.

      So yes, ionizing radiation has a genetic component that is nonexistent (or at least non-observable) on the wimpier side of the E.M. spectrum. A lot of rad pioneers died of cancer as we figured that out.

      A lot of people have died from sunstroke. But to avoid sunshine is to court vitamin D deficiency. The exposures we pick up are far closer to the (theoretical) lower value than the higher one.

      • 1389AD says:

        Lack of vitamin D exposure causes rickets. It is a particular risk for women in Muslim countries that require the skin to be completely covered up out of doors. If the woman is pregnant, the child is affected too.

    • submandave says:

      As yet another former Navy nukes, allow me this opportunity to comment on another popular misconception about radiation effects you touch upon. While it is true that radiation can cause genetic effects, AFAIK there is no statistical evidence to support the popular idea that any of these defects can be passed on to future generations. We carefully studied the offspring of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors and it just doesn’t happen that way.

      • wormme says:

        Very good point!

        Every developed country has killed off its share of radiological pioneers. And don’t forget all those ladies who painted radium dials; they’d constantly use their lips to twirl the brushtips to a fine point. Ugh.

        And I’m with you; if there’s been generational harm to these folks’ descendents, I’ve never seen it.

  9. Keith says:

    Found the link to your essay at Dr. Pournelle’s website, and promptly reposted the link on social media. Thank you – I had a sense that the problems at Fukushima (sp?) were being overhyped, but it’s good to have a qualified subject matter expert who can inject some sanity into the discussion.

    • wormme says:

      The radiation dangers are certainly overhyped, but of course a meltdown scenario is an epic of seriousness. In fact it was stupid to bet my life against no one dying of radiation, because suppose somebody decides to play hero?

      The need for heroics isn’t anything like Chernobyl’s, but that doesn’t mean someone couldn’t choose to go out in a blaze of gamma.

      • John Bono says:

        Well, you only have to worry about your bet if you have some pointy eared guys talking about the needs of the many/few/one, etc.

      • wormme says:

        I would sacrifice myself just as heroically. Provided I get a peek at the next script to make sure things go the same way.

      • Keith says:

        Granted, a catastrophic core melt and containment failure would be extremely unpleasant, and we can’t offer warranties against human stupidity. On the other hand, from what actual information I can sift out of the doom-mongering (and I further grant that I’m only a semi-educated layman on the subject), if the plant crews keep their heads and don’t get further into the “coffin corner” of cascading failures, they’ll work it out with minimal difficulties – and you’ll win your bet.

  10. Yeah, thx Wormy! Very informative. And “acronym poisoning,” ha. All of us that deal with the military would surely perish.

  11. SeanB says:

    So basically the radiation danger is moderately above what most people will be exposed to in the kitchen, cutting food and such on the nice granite top, whilst enjoying a relaxing cigarette next to the natural gas stove. As far as I am aware all these are the major source of most radiation, aside from Bananas and Brazil nuts, that you find around you.

    I would rather live inside the safety zone of a nuclear power plant than live in the Gulf of Mexico post the Deepwater Horizon incident, where it pretty much is dangerous to drink water, eat seafood or even swim in the sea due to the really toxic oil and dispersant byproducts that are all over there, and which will be there for decades.

    • wormme says:

      Hey, you do know your natural sources of radiation.

      Don’t forget to serve that food on pre-WWII red Fiestaware. Food stays warmer, longer!

      • 1389AD says:

        There’s also radon gas. It comes up from the soil. You can get rid of it by opening windows or having some vent fans in your house. In any case, even a hundred years ago, people knew it wasn’t healthy to live in a place with no ventilation.

    • 1389AD says:

      Bananas are a great source of potassium. My doctor says to eat them (in moderate quantities, of course) to get the potassium. Potassium is an electrolyte that is needed by those of us who still have functioning synapses. No electrolytes means flatline – which means you don’t get to live long enough to have to worry about cancer or anything else!

  12. Sardondi says:

    I admit to having been one of the radi-ignorant, troubled by the “1000x normal!!!” headlines, worried we’d see one or more Chernobyls, but this time in much more densely populated Japan. I needed this bit of scale to help me return to rationality. Thanks, WORM!

    Another issue is whether some of these “expert reports” I have seen linked by Drudge are actually from anti-nuke activists willing to take advantage (yet again) on an ignorant public’s fear. Any thoughts on who the experts are or what their institutions espouse?

    • wormme says:

      I’m not watching T.V. news, so I don’t know who the “expert” talking heads are. I do know that the earlier an “expert” publicly weighs in, the more likely he’s a political activist.

      “Never let a crisis go to waste,” right?

  13. ThomasD says:

    It is my understanding that Rem values are weighted for the type of radiation in question. But, to my mind (and quite possibly I’m wrong) this might be somewhat misleading. A great big dose of alpha particles might add up to a lot of rems, but it’s not going to get very far into your body. Whereas a smaller amount of rems, if in the form of gamma rays, seems much more problematic.

    Then there is the issue of actually ingesting radioactive isotopes like cesium or iodine, which would seem most likely to cause noticeable effects.

    But I have to agree that most of the coverage to date strikes me as hyperbolic, overwrought, and ill informed.

    • wormme says:

      You are very well-informed and are exactly right. Which kind of radiation is worst? Depends. Does it originate outside your body? Then it’s gamma, except for eyes and skin. Beta would damage those more for a given dose.

      Alpha? It’s not an external hazard. Internally? It’s the worst. It doesn’t travel far because it’s ionizing so much of its surroundings. Very bad, when the surroundings are living flesh.

      As far as ingesting, you also need to consider isotopes’ biological affinity. Iodine goes to the thyroid, more alpha-emitters are “bone-seekers”.

      If you just have to ingest radioactive material, I recommend tritium. It’s a pure weak beta emitter and disperses rather than concentrates in the body. And, traditionally, drinking beer is a legitimate flushing technique.

      Quite a few folks use that method proactively.

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    • wormme says:

      Excellent, thanks for the link!

      Yep, boron will do the trick for fission. You’ve still got the decay heat from isotopes, but at least you’ve stopped making more.

  16. John Campbell says:

    Thanks for this – you can’t overdose on rationality.

    As I get older, I can see that life is simple – its complicated.

    Your post reminded me of a recent post in a blog I follow. Your blog will join that illustrious and random group – HT to Instapundit!

    You might want to check this out:

    Cheers and thanks again!

  17. Pingback: How Many People In Japan Will Die From Radiation Poisoning? None. | marfdrat

  18. Japan’s top government spokesman says a partial meltdown is under way at a damaged nuclear reactor. They flooded another with sea water which means it can never be rebuilt. Whatever radioactivity got out, a wave of it will pass from Japan going ==>==>east…over entire world, Hawaii, Alaska Russia get heaviest hit, Pacific northwest 2nd worst… we must take iodine in solution to
    keep radiation out of our thyroids. Google radiation + iodine + rememdy don’t know if seaweed tablets will do the job. I immed. started taking MODIFILAN last nite, brown seaweed extract in caps, google that, developed for chernobyl, Liquid form for children could be made, served as seaweed soup, delicious, i used to go to Chinese restaurant to get a bowl. Tastes fab. Beef up the soup w. some potas.iodide.. that is the basic stuff see SOME OLD
    pharmacist from the 50’s will know the drill the ole guy who remembers
    bomb scares, cuban crisis, ruski meanace etc. ask him which iodide works
    best. So far no news agency has had any info on PREVAILING WINDs which
    go east on this planet and see
    CNN reported they are in total meltdown late Saturday I google stuff to
    send my grandkids in Hawaii & find, according to the CDC, potassium
    iodine is great for protecting people against radioactive iodine, which
    is one of the things released in the Japan nuclear reactor explosion.
    However, it only protects the thyroid gland. It does not protect the
    rest of the body. One must stay in house til rad. cloud passes by.
    Here’s how it works: after a radiological event, radioactive iodine may
    be released into the atmosphere. It can then enter a human body by being
    breathed into the lungs, or being ingested through contaminated food or
    water. The CDC calls that “internal contamination.” The thyroid gland
    could be easily damaged by the chemical, as it readily absorbed
    iodine,but the potassium iodine blocks the radioactive iodine from being
    taken into the gland.

    It should be noted that if a person has hyperthyroid (overactive),
    frequently they simply give him radioactive iodine to take to “kill” the
    gland. Thereafter, the patient takes a thyroid supplement for the rest
    of his or her life.

    Howver, potassium iodine cannot protect against radioactive agents, such
    as cesium, which was also released in the Japanese reactor explosion. It
    cannot prevent an agent from entering the body and damaging other
    portions, such as the lungs if ingested via breathing. It cannot reverse
    the damage caused by radioactive iodine once it has been done to the

    In effect, what Japan is doing with their implmentation of a
    distribution of potassium iodine is protection against radioactive
    iodine, but that is it. It will be good against thyroid damage, but as
    an extreme example, you couldn’t have save someone from the effects of
    the radiation from fallout from the Nagasaki or Hiroshima atomic bombs
    through the use of iodine. That said, the CDC still has a series of
    recommendations about the use of potassium iodine (KI):After a
    radiologic or nuclear event, local public health or emergency management
    officials will tell the public if KI or other protective actions are
    needed. For example, public health officials may advise you to remain in
    your home, school, or place of work (this is known as
    “shelter-in-place”) or to evacuate. You may also be told not to eat some
    foods and not to drink some beverages until a safe supply can be brought
    in from outside the affected area. cows tend to absorb cesium so load up
    now on cheese you freeze, powd. milk, canned milk. Following the
    instructions given to you by these authorities can lower the amount of
    radioactive iodine that enters your body and lower the risk of serious
    injury to your thyroid gland. The FDA has approved two different forms
    of KI—tablets and liquid—that people can take by mouth after a nuclear
    radiation emergency. Tablets come in two strengths, 130 milligram (mg)
    and 65 mg. The tablets are scored so they may be cut into smaller pieces
    for lower doses. Each milliliter (mL) of the oral liquid solution
    contains 65 mg of KI. According to the FDA, the following doses are
    appropriate to take after internal contamination with (or likely
    internal contamination with) radioactive iodine:

    * Adults should take 130 mg (one 130 mg tablet OR two 65 mg tablets
    OR two mL of solution).

    * Women who are breastfeeding should take the adult dose of 130 mg.

    * Children between 3 and 18 years of age should take 65 mg (one 65 mg
    tablet OR 1 mL of solution). Children who are adult size (greater than
    or equal to 150 pounds) should take the full adult dose, regardless of
    their age.

    * Infants and children between 1 month and 3 years of age should take 32
    mg (½ of a 65 mg tablet OR ½ mL of solution). This dose is for both
    nursing and non-nursing infants and children.

    * Newborns from birth to 1 month of age should be given 16 mg (¼ of a 65
    mg tablet or ¼ mL of solution). This dose is for both nursing and
    non-nursing newborn infants.

    The protective effects of a dose of KI is about 24 hours. KI is
    available without a prescription, and a pharmacist can sell you KI
    brands that have been approved by the FDA.

    • wormme says:

      Wow, that’s…comprehensive.

      Iodine tablets can indeed help. For the most part there’s not much that can be done for radiological uptakes. There are some chelating agents that can help for a number of isotopes, drinking lots of water for tritium and anything else that might be “flushable”.

      I worked with a man who had his thyroid “burnt out” by radioiodine. He’d gotten the treatment before my time. But was hotter than a firecracker and left a cloud of contamination in his wake, like PigPen from Peanuts.

    • submandave says:

      “Whatever radioactivity got out, a wave of it will pass from Japan going ==>==>east…over entire world, Hawaii, Alaska Russia get heaviest hit, Pacific northwest 2nd worst… we must take iodine in solution to
      keep radiation out of our thyroids.”

      I will assume by “wave” of “radioactivity” you are speaking of fallout from air dispersed radioactive materials (especially radioiodine). I would not worry much about this, as the concentration of materials will disperse almost by the inverse square rule based upon distance, and Fukushima is still quite far from even the populated areas of Alaska by great circle. It seems to me that you got much of your information cut/paste from somewhere, and it reads like one of the more reactionary sources.
      In perspective, to worry about what you have written here is no more logical than driving at < 5mph at all times to reduce the risk of a fatal car accident.

  19. SeanB says:

    The most common source was gas mantles, but those are not a common thing these days, except if you do a lot of camping or have frequent power outages. They contain Thorium in a small amount, even if they are marked as being Thorium free.

    Fire and smoke detectors are also very mild emitters, but very useful in case of emergency to wake you up to fire, provided you buy a battery when the old one is flat, and do not just remove it to stop that annoying chirp. More people have probably been killed in fires where a smoke alarm did not go off because a battery was flat or removed than have died from radiation.

    As to bananas and nuts I probably have gotten a very large portion of my total dose from them, as bananas grow very well here, and are served in a large number of tasty ways.

    • wormme says:

      The sources we use to check our friskers are Thorium. I haven’t measured a pack of mantles in a while, but I believe they have considerably more activity than the check sources.

      But by far the most activity you stride past is in tritium emergency exit signs. A new one has about 20 Curies of activity. A 20-Curie Cobalt-60 source could kill you if you carried it around for a few hours. Twenty Curies of contained tritium? No hazard at all.

  20. Sam E says:

    I am another old US Navy Nuc, class of 66/3. I also did attend the advanced ELT class. I have little to add, except to point out again that 40 year old reactors survived just about the worst possible catastrophe, short of being hit with a nuclear weapon, with out significant, if any, loss of life.

    And this is the greatest threat to humanity in the history of the world??????????????

    • wormme says:

      Risk/benefit analysis isn’t their strong suit.

      Thanks for visiting, and for your military service!

    • 1389AD says:

      Not having enough available energy sources to maintain civil society for a population of over six billion would be the greatest threat to humanity in the history of the world. That’s why we need our nuke plants!

  21. Billy says:

    Just heard on Fox that Joe Lieberman said all US plans to build nuclear plants should be halted until we learn everything we can from this incident. I wish I had the direct quote. So the “no more nukes” here is already starting.

    • wormme says:

      Rather than “learn everything we can”, I vote for “learn the right lesson”: don’t build nuke plants in seismically-active regions. Or, if you must, build nukes that were designed less than a half-century ago.

      Could meltdown-proof fuel…I dunno…reduce the risk of meltdown?

      As is, Joe’s big idea is more talk. More politicians, more attorneys, more academic “experts”, and thus, inevitably, more lobbyists. That private sector folks will lose their jobs is a small price to pay for political posturing.

      I say lay off as many bureaucrats as possible. Hire scientists, engineers, technicians and workers instead. You know.

      The people who actually make things safer, instead of just talking about it.

  22. Sam E says:

    “Rather than “learn everything we can”, I vote for “learn the right lesson”: don’t build nuke plants in seismically-active regions. Or, if you must, build nukes that were designed less than a half-century ago.”

    While I don’t claim to be an expert on Japan, I was stationed at NAS Atsugi for a bit over two years. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anywhere in Japan that isn’t a seismically-active region. So if Japan is to have nuclear power, they must build in seismically-active regions.

    I agree that it would be insane not to take advantage of every bit that has been learned over the last fifty years. The fact remains that it looks like more people were killed in America by the tsunami(1) than were killed by escaped radiation from all of the forty year old nuclear power plants that failed in Japan put together. Now it is possible that a handful of deaths may wind up to have been killed by escaped radiation. I am almost certain that there will be a large number of of swept away cars where the death toll for that individual car is larger than those killed by escaped radiation.

    All things considered, it looks like those forty year old plants preformed very well under circumstances that went way beyond their design parameters.

    • wormme says:

      Yes, society just can’t keep its head when it comes to nukes. These plants were designed in the 60’s. Every single other industry is much safer now than back then. And those all still kill people…unlike half-century old nuke plants, that don’t kill anyone.

      It’s crazy.

      • submandave says:

        I believe nuclear power has been, from the beginning, beset with two main PR problems.

        The first is that the world’s introduction to the wonders of nuclear power was the destruction of two cities and deaths of hundres of thousands of people. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and, like it or not, atomic energy’s first impression is one of death and destruction.

        The second is that nuclear power has always been wrapped in a cloak of secrecy or saddled with the “you’re not smart enough to understand it” label. Back in the ’50s this mught have flown, but in the ’60s it just made people paranoid that something bad was going on and the government was just trying to cover it up. This same dynamic of distrust is often at the forefront of anti-nukism.

      • wormme says:

        Stupidity and arrogance on both sides of the argument, yes.

        But maybe it’ll be like fire. Before fire was controlled it claimed human lives, it didn’t preserve them. And it still regularly gets out of control and kills people.

        Yet nobody’s calling for fire to be banned. Even the dimmest folks realize it does vastly more good than harm.

        So currently our caveman tribe is divided. Half shout “controlled atomic fire good!” the other half “atomic fire bad!” Since their argument is pithier, we’re at a disadvantage.

        Stupid cavemen…

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  29. Mountainbear says:

    Hey now, who you’re calling an Eurowussie?!

    Euro-peon is the proper term! I’m going to sue you at the Euro-peon Court of Euro-peon-nesse or something!

    Anyway, that said, while I’m used to Sievert, Gray, etc, I think it’s great that someone still uses rem, rad, etc. Especially rad makes me giggle with glee all the time. I blame the Fallout series.

    • wormme says:

      How about contamination? Do you guys say, “I’m crapped up!”? Or (just guessing here), “I have soiled myself.”?

      Not that anyone ever gets contaminated, of course.

      • Brian H says:

        As long as you don’t lick your clothes clean every day, it’s not a real problem. Most rad precautions and standards are way over the top. See my “Taipei” posting below.

      • Mountainbear says:

        Hmmm, I don’t know, I’m not a native English speaker, but going by what’s happening on neighboring German TV… oh dear. The German term for it, which is always used, is “kontaminiert”, so yes, they actually say contaminated. And according to those people we’re already under a nuclear death cloud worse than Chernobyl. The Green party is having a field day with this. The plans for letting older German reactors roll a bit longer (decided last year) are, by now, scrapped.

        I’m back at university on Wednesday and I’m already curious if these anti-nuclear-power guys, who have been parking their propaganda (parts of it from the 80s, seriously, I kid you not, we had this campaign “Atomkraft – Nein Danke!” “atomic power – thank you but no” in the 80s and the material they’re bringing out now is really from back then, so totally outdated on everything) at the local subway station last year, will be there again. Most likely they will be and they’ll be screaming against nuclear power louder than ever (with as little facts as always.) For them electricity comes from the plug in the wall.

        Mind you, we don’t have nuclear power stations in this country. We have one reactor, but that is a small one, for scientific purposes. There is a nuclear power station in Zwentendorf, which was built, but then building stopped because the people were against it. But we do import nuclear power generated electricity, because the local productions sometimes isn’t enough. We produce most of it in water and coal plants.

        Mind you, I experienced Chernobyl as a child. There was huge panic here in Austria and other countries. We kids were not allowed to go outside, for example.

        Today I’m convinced that I took more radiation last year with all the x-rays at my dentist (which were related to my implant), than what I would have gotten had I played outside back then.

  30. Dave says:

    Thank you for a useful post: you do a fine job of explaining complex technical subjects simply and accurately, something that I fear many TV news programs cannot do.

    Can you recommend any links or books explaining how nuclear power plants work? Something akin to your writing: it doesn’t shy away from technical terms, but it explains them in a way a layman can understand.

    • wormme says:

      Thanks for the compliment!

      I don’t know any general texts offhand. I’ll try to find a few and post them. I’d also check out Wikipedia. It’s been quite good on various general and technical matters I’ve seen. Non-politicized subjects can generally be trusted.

      But in general, nuke plants work like coal plants. They heat water into steam and use that to turn turbines and generate electricity. Coal plants use chemical combustion. Nukes use…hey, I’ll just make a quick little post on it!

      • Dave says:

        Thanks for the reply. Between the half-dozen astronomy classes I’ve taken and the fact that I’ve read Richard Rhodes’s brilliant “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” (which won a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction writing: it’s really worth the read, despite its mass and density), I am a wee bit informed on the topic. But questions like what do they use to make control rods, what do they use to make the building the reactor’s housed in, and what do they do with the uranium (is it always uranium?) when it’s “spent” are beyond my knowledge. As I said, I appreciate finding someone who can teach a layman like me who’s just interested in learning more.

        I’m thrilled Professor Reynolds linked to you: there are a couple dozen things I learned here today that count as “the really cool thing I learned today,” which is a goal for EVERY day.

  31. Bonfire of the Idiocies says:

    Hey, it’s about the same amount of risk as death by global warming (leaving out all the earthquakes and snowstorms that it causes, not to mentioned boring-to-death books by Al Gore.) I think I’ll go eat a two-pound cheeseburger soaked in a pound of butter to celebrate my risk-free life!

  32. Sigivald says:

    Did you read about us shipping “coolant” to Japan yesterday? “Coolant” is water. Highly pure water. So I don’t understand that manuever, unless American H2O is superior to Nipponese coolant. Doubtful.

    Maybe they meant borated water?

    I could see the press screwing that up into “coolant”, since it’s a special liquid aimed at, in the long run, making the core cooler…

    • wormme says:

      It’s possible, but seems doubtful. They’ve probably got “last-ditch” boron water on hand, and I haven’t heard about them having trouble controlling fission, just the waste heat. If they’re cooling with seawater, though, they might as well toss some boron in to be sure. It’s not like they’ll be using that reactor again.

  33. CAPT Mike says:

    Excellent Post! and you are to be commended for your diligence and patience in aswering so many follow up questions!
    I’m one of those ex-Navy nucs as well . . . Plankowner on the USS Alaska


    • wormme says:

      Thank you Captain Mike!

      I’m assuming you’re an Ohio Alaskan? Or, if you were on the original…well done! Was it TARDIS, or Terminator?

  34. CAPT Mike says:

    Howdy again wormme,
    I was DCA on the commissioning crew for the USS ALASKA (SSBN 732 BLUE), which was commissioned in 1985.
    Don’t understand time travel references . . .
    But do appreciate someone that understands health Physics taking a few minutes to demystify the reactor news story; I’m convinced that most folks are irrationally afraid of nuclear power simply becuase they are ignorant of relative risks and benefits.

    Best Regards,

    • wormme says:

      Oh, I’m not an expert on Navy vessels, so I Wiki’ed the Alaska. There’ve been four. The first was a wooden sloop-of-war decommissioned in 1883.

  35. Tilly says:

    Man, it’s a mess now, would you like to go and put your lawnchair out front of the stricken bank of nuclear reactors and get a “Sunburn” like other bloggers have mentioned here?
    This is no longer a matter that one can just wish away….

    I hope they get the least damage from the leaking nuclear reactor.

  36. MissJacki says:

    thanks! this was very informational. I happen to have pre-stocked a variety of emergency items for our family including KI tablets, and was trying to find out when or if to take them. I am mostly concerned for my almost 2 year old boy, because it seems the thyroid cancer is more of a concern the younger you are.

    Anyways, your blog has reassured me quite a bit, and I think at least for now I’ll save our stockpile for a future disaster (or ideally never)

    One question: do you think we can trust our government and the japanese government to give us accurate info as to the risks? i.e. they know that less than 5% of the population is equipped with KI tablets, and so in order to minimize widespread panic they might just tell people to remain calm and everything is fine, when in reality a few of us could actually lower our risk by using our readily available supplies…do you know what I mean?

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  38. Brian H says:

    Read recently about the longitudinal study of the thousands of residents of Taipei apartments built with Cobalt-60 contaminated steel. The prediction was for much increased cancer death rates, over the baseline 290 or so for that size group.

    They got 7. Overall, the cancer reductions were about 97%. Gamma is good for you! Keeps the cell repair mechanisms in top form.

  39. Gurdip Singh says:

    it is pity that technology has hit back in the worst ever tragedy. For radiation and other illness related symptoms, try taking homeopathy. They say they have remedy for the over doses of radiation like electricity and X-ray by preparing potentised dose from the contaminated articles.

    • prairie wind says:

      Homeopathy? Since there is a minuscule amount of radiation to worry about, I suppose treating it with minuscule amounts of sense couldn’t hurt.

      • wormme says:

        Ouch. But I don’t dismiss nonsense in general, just specific nonsense. After witnessing a successful dowsing, I must acknowledge that the human body can be pretty tuned pretty precisely.

      • John Nevard says:

        It’s an interesting point that there are actually homeopathic ‘remedies’ which claim to be based on heavily diluted plutonium. If you’re gonna drink water it may as well have an exciting name attached.

  40. Scott says:

    I applaud what you are doing. I too am a Health Physicist for a University campus. I have 21 years under my belt and I have been inundated with questions since last Friday. The MSM needs to get a grip, which some organizations apparently have no clue. I am sure that dire news broadcasts help the ratings though. This is an exceptional time to educate the public about Nuclear Power and how it has a relative safety margin per person that far surpasses Oil, coal, wood and natural gas.

  41. Jim says:

    Bravo!! from myself, a civil engineer and hobby nuclear enthusiast, and our company safety manager (formerly head of safety for several major northeast nuclear plants). I feel like my part time job lately has been helping stem the tide of pure hysterics that I’ve come across in conversations and on facebook.

    I first got into radioactive things when I made the crossover from playing with high voltage stuff to playing with x-ray stuff. A bit more thrilling 🙂 Since then I’ve built my own scintillometer for a Ludlum meter, done some radioactive mineral prospecting, located an abandoned uranium mine in an unnamed Northeastern state, and acquired a small piece of U-238 (legally).

    My fondest memory was when the regional FEMA nuclear response coordinator for a Northeast state happened upon me trying to sell a few said hot materials at a Ham radio festival and told me to “keep up the good work” in reversing decades of hippy propaganda.

    Yes sir.

  42. Pingback: Actual lives versus statistical deaths. | World's Only Rational Man

  43. Pingback: The PJ Tatler » Another “sense of proportion” post

  44. Pingback: Did you know that Japan and America are different? Well, I forgot. | World's Only Rational Man

  45. DefendUSA says:

    As the name implies, I was a defender. And I simply want to convey my thanks for your posts. We were in Europe when Chernobyl happened and our unit had an “arm” I liked to call the European EPA because we tested soil, vegetation, wine and food for many things. When The Chernobyl incident happened, there was panic in general, but as chemical or medical lab techs many things were understood.

    I don’t recall anything then like I see now, especially with the media’s willful obtuseness to avoid giving all the facts so to feed the frenzy. It pisses me off, frankly. I have actually spent at least an hour a day “spanking” the ignorant people who confuse fact and emotion (oh the long term affects and all the cancer that will happen…wrings hands, wah) with what is what. I am nowhere near as on it as you and some others I have seen but I get it and I say it where ever I see the hand-wringers.

    Why can’t we just educate people or, better yet, why are some so willingly accepting of the info passed on by the MFM, to use AofS term? It’s just insane.
    Anyway, you have done a superb job as have the commenting Navy Nukes guys. Kudos!!

  46. Pingback: Japan’s Radioactive Fallout Approaching Chernobyl’s | Environment & Democracy Politics by David Dilworth

  47. Technologist says:

    Wormme, I started as a Nuclear Fireman (Red Badge) at San Onofre since startup. Just about everything is falling apart. That crack leaking radioactive water into the ocean was discovered in pit housing electrical cables near the Unit 2 seawater inlet is registering 1,000 millisieverts per hour (You know 100 REM) in the air. The workers are down to only minutes of exposure before crapping out. The water flowing in the crack is reported to be +10,000 millisieverts per hour and it keeps climbing. Several Reactors are from 30-70% of full meltdown. Most likely on that 70% reactor the core is breaching with a blob starting to melt into the ground below the reactor.

    Arnie Gundersen (You know three mile island) claims it’s already past Chernobyl.

    From my calculations this has the potential of dumping close to 1000 times the total radiation that Chernobyl has done in the last few decades. That’s if only “just one” of the reactors and spent fuel pools completely deteriorates. Why? The problem is that 6291 fuel assemblies were stored in the storage pool and that’s almost 600 tons worth of spent fuel. Unit 3 is a MOX reactor so now we also have much more Plutonium to deal with. Chernobyl didn’t even have 1:1000th the total radioactive mess we currently have at Fukushima.

    Quote: “Okay, to be precise, the answer is ”indeterminate”. No one will die from acute exposure. And if there’s any increase in cancer, it will be totally lost in statistical noise. Yes, this is one of those cases where’ll I’ll bet my life against any asset you care to risk”

    I’ll take you up on that bet.

    • wormme says:

      Welcome, Technologist.

      Boy, I’m glad I can point to that offer already being withdrawn, right after seeing workers going around with respirators OVER their hoods.

      That was before the >1 Sv/h water was discovered. Which also made me blanch.

      So let’s see what we agree on. There’ll be no acute deaths from radiation, correct? Assuming TEPCO holds to the 250mSv (25 rem) emergency dose. Suppose they end up having to use hundreds or (shudder) thousands of “jumpers” to get a little work done each, at let’s say 12 mSv dose per. That’s getting in a range where we might see some extra cancer among them in coming decades. Can’t say for sure because there’s really not a lot of data. We know the “non-threshold” model we use is wrong (in the safe, conservative direction) but we don’t know by how much.

      But a thousand times the release of Chernobyl? Long-lived stuff? I agree if that happens it’s hard to imagine avoiding a statistical increase. Please link some info and I’ll start check it out.

      I’m especially interested in the 10+ Sv/h dose rate you mention. It’s been driving me crazy seeing dose rates of >1,000 mSv/h. I’ve been looking for that “greater than” to actually be quantified.

      Apart from those horrible dose rates, most of what we’ve gotten from the media are cries of “wolf!”. Many alarms have been raised, then never confirmed nor retracted. It’s a mess out there, information-wise. But I’m happy to look at anything.

  48. Technologist says:

    It’s almost comical looking at the extremes.

    0 or 200,000?

    You say no acute deaths from radiation.

    This study from the European Committee on Radiation Risk ECRR???
    is already at 200,000 deaths within 200km’s.
    What are these guys thinking?

    I’m going to take the price is right route and say >1 death.
    BTW: What is the prize?

    I think I have a better chance of winning the prize without going over.
    Besides with all those aftershocks one of the jumpers is bound to fall into one of those almost boiling spent fuel pools. I’m also planning that some kamikaze is going to jump in the first glowing puddle of radioactive MegaSievert Goo he sees.

    wormme 1
    ECRR >200,000 as of March 30th

    • wormme says:

      Well, if I’d known this was “The Price is Right” with human lives I’d have insisted on guessing third.

      Discounting suicide–which I acknowledged as possible soon after the hydrogen explosions–or those willfully going past the 250mSv (25 rem) dose limit, then yes, I absolutely say their will be no acute death. I do not believe anyone is so radiosensitive as to die from that exposure.

      We’re both clear on the distinction between “acute” and “chronic”, right? About 25,000 Japanese were lost to the natural disaster, I’m pretty sure eight times as many haven’t been slain by radiation just yet.

      • Brian H says:

        Actually, the article predicts 200K CANCERS over 10 yrs., not deaths.

        Even that is using a linear extrapolation of acute exposure to low/medium dosage. Probably wrong even in sign.

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  50. Micky Pinto says:

    Interesting article. You are great at putting radiation which scares us all into perspective.
    Recently while travelling back from the UK I was asked (and went) through an x-ray backscatter test/screen. Of course I returned srtarted reading and got freaked out but mostly what is written about it.. But as I studied it it seems that I got about 20 microrem mostly to the skin. I am not happy about it but in perspective I ll probably be OK.
    Any thoughts on these scanners?

    • wormme says:

      There’s no known statistical hazard associated with that dose. Most people get around 1000 microrem/day from natural sources. That works out to 40 microrem/hour to the skin. Millions of people naturally get over twice that dose from natural fluctuations, with no observed increase in cancer incidences.

      I’d say there’s no worry from 20 urem at any time. If there’s a worry, it’s that the dose you’re told isn’t accurate. I can’t say with certainty, but there’s a very high probability the machines pose no calculable risk.

      UPDATE–just realized, I don’t know the energy of the x-rays. If they’re soft enough they’ll deposit most of the energy in a very limited area, much like beta radiation. Will need to know more about the specifics of these machines to opine with confidence.

  51. Tuinea Sorin says:

    would you mind helping me a little? i found your blog looking for informations about radiations. i’m planning a trip to Prypiat, i’d like to know your opinion about the risks of doing that.
    My email address is

    Thank you in advance

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