Tag Archives: radiation

That Japanese Nuclear Plant Incident Resulted In Zero Deaths

Yes, you read that correctly: the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor, due to a tsunami created by the most powerful earthquake to ever hit Japan, has not killed and likely will not kill even one person. That’s in stark contrast to the news of the time, when we heard that death was inevitable for at least some of the workers trying to fix the radiation leak, and that it was a Chernobyl-level disaster. There were also worries about the environment being desolated, food being irradiated and generally what you’d expect from a post-apocalyptic landscape following nuclear war.

March 14, 2011: A Red Cross rescue worker, in red, is scanned for signs of radiation upon returning from Fukushima to his hospital in Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture. (AP/Fox News)

March 14, 2011: A Red Cross rescue worker, in red, is scanned for signs of radiation upon returning from Fukushima to his hospital in Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture. (AP/Fox News)


At the time, xkcd published an infographic showing that it would take about 4 weeks of someone staying in the plant before they would get the amount of radiation that’s clearly linked to cancer. (A flight from NY to LA gives you the same amount radiation as 11 days at the plant, during the incident.) Now, two years later, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has some findings:

  • Most Japanese got less radiation exposure from the incident than they would from normal background radiation
  • The six people that had the highest exposure, absorbed about 678 milliSieverts (mSv) of radiation, which is well below the 1000 mSv that causes radiation sickness or increases the chance of cancer
  • Most of the area’s background radiation is back to normal, and all of it will be by 2017
  • “The exposures on both marine and terrestrial non-human biota were too low for observable acute effects.”
  • The worst effect is a very negligible increase (6% of the normal rate) of female breast cancer and male leukemia.

Now, the quake and tsunami itself did kill about 16,000 people; but radiation killed zero. The worst nuclear disaster ever, Chernobyl, which was due to gross human error, killed 46 people. Contrast this to supposedly safe coal power, which claims an average of 35 lives and 4,000 injuries per year. Then consider that about 41% of the world’s electricity comes from coal, but only about 13% comes from nuclear plants.

World Electricity Power Sources

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From UN Information Service, via The Age and Slashdot

Video Of 1950s Nuke Exploding Over Five Officers

In the late 1950s, Americans were starting to fear nuclear war. Of course, outside of the blast radius of a nuclear detonation, things are nowhere near as terrible as movies and popular opinion will have you believe. So in 1957, an Air Force Colonel got five other officers to agree to stand directly below a low-yield nuclear detonation, to prove that nukes weren’t as terrible as we are led to believe. Two fighters then flew over them and fired a nuclear missile which then detonated 18,500 feet above (not 10,000 as the video says), while one of the officers narrated the whole thing.

Two things that stand out are the amount of time it takes for the “ground wave” to hit them after the flash of the detonation (same effect as thunder arriving after lightning), and the point right after that, in which the sky turns black. The missile’s yield was a mere 2 kilotons — the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were 16 and 21kt, respectively, and the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated, the Tsar Bomba, yielded 50,000 kt. By comparison, the most powerful conventional (i.e., non-nuclear) weapon’s blast yield is only 0.044kt.

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From YouTube, via NPR

Cigarettes Are Radioactive

A little known fact is that besides containing arsenic and cyanide, cigarettes also contain a radioactive element called polonium. This is the same element used to assassinate former-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 in London. For some unknown reason, the tobacco plant seems to selectively absorb uranium by-products from the soil, which later decay into radioactive polonium.

Just how radioactive are cigarettes? According to the Army Corps of Engineers (PDF), smoking two packs a day for a year will cause a person to absorb 80 milliSieverts (mSv) of radiation, which is about 20x more than all the radiation a non-smoker gets from the usual sources (airplane flights, bananas, x-rays, watching TV, etc). The minimum radiation dose clearly linked to increased risk of cancer is 100 mSv per year, and two packs a day is not far from that at all. So if you’re a heavy-smoking pilot who breaks bones a lot, you’re kinda screwed.

Photo by RawMotion


But let’s say you’re not a heavy smoker and you want to know how much radiation is in one pack of smokes. A little math tells us that’s 110 µSv, which is a little more than five chest x-rays, and a little less than half of what a nuclear power plant is allowed to produce per year. Again, that’s in one pack. So if you smoke a pack a week, that adds about 5.7 mSv per year, which means you  absorb about 2.5x more radiation than the average non-smoker, but still only about 10% of the yearly radiation dose clearly linked to cancer.

Meanwhile, the electronic cigarette lobby implies that their products don’t contain polonium.

Sources: The New York Times, US Army Corps of Engineers, and xkcd

Despite Everything, Nuclear Power Still Safe

The Straight Dope has an article on how despite Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island, nuclear power is still among the safest sources of power, and probably the cleanest. Especially when compared to coal:

Each year. on average, 35 U.S. coal miners are killed and 4,000 are injured. In China, 2,600 coal miners were killed in 2009, following 3,200 dead in 2008. (Recent U.S. uranium mining deaths: zero.) Coal-burning power plants release close to three times as much radioactivity as nuclear plants. I focus on coal because it’s the one other energy source we can count on to deliver a big piece of predicted rising demand, but even solar cell manufacture involves toxic waste production.

Compare that with 46 deaths from Chernobyl, which was by far the worst nuclear power incident, and stemmed from gross human error and poor plant design.

From The Straight Dope

The Truth About Dangerous Radiation Levels

Our brains don’t understand abstract units very well: how much is a thousand pounds? But we can process data in relative terms pretty well: a thousand pounds is about five guys, or a half of a car. Because of this and the recent news about radiation leakage in Japan, xkcd made a very helpful infographic illustrating radiation absorption in relative terms. The SI unit of absorbed radiation is a sievert, abbreviated Sv, and the graphic shows how much radiation is absorbed under various circumstances, in terms of that unit. Some highlights:

  • Eating a banana gives you more radiation than living within 50 miles of  a nuclear power plant for a year
  • Using those ancient not-flat monitors for a year is equivalent to 10 bananas, or living within 50 miles of a coal power plant for 3 years, or a nuclear one for 11 years.
  • A flight from NY to LA is 4x the normal daily radiation a person is exposed to, also equivalent eating 400 bananas (about a truckload), or getting 8 dental x-rays.
  • 11 days of radiation nearby the Fukushima nuclear power plant that got damaged by the Japan earthquake, is about the same as the flight from NY to LA.
  • The natural potassium in our body over a year is like 10 of the NY-LA flights, or 3 months near the Fukushima power plant.
  • Smoking a pack of cigarettes is like spending two weeks at the Fukushima Town Hall after the accident.
  • Living in a stone, brick or concrete house gives you more than twice the radiation legally released by a nuclear power plant.
  • The daily radiation at Fukushima is a little more than that from a mammogram
  • The lowest radiation level in one year that’s clearly linked to increase in cancer is equivalent to:
    • 4 weeks at Fukushima
    • about 18 chest CT scans,
    • 33 mammograms, or
    • Smoking 913 packs of cigarettes in a year (~18 packs a week)
    • eating one million bananas. That last one would be over 2700 bananas per day.

Updated May 22, 2011 to include info about cigarette radioactivity.

Via Slashdot