Innovation

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Unfair fallout

Why is nuclear radiation such a bogie man?

Written at a hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, and dispatched to silicon.com via a free wi-fi service

The MRI scanner happens to be one of the most powerful inventions available to medical science. But it had to be made safe and cuddly for the public by omitting the 'N' for nuclear from its full title of NMRI. Anything with nuclear in the title is now a no-no.

People have become sensitised to 'nuclear' - and its partner, 'radiation' - to a ridiculous degree. True, nuclear radiation is a much bigger hazard than your mobile, which poses such a small threat we can't even measure it.

But nuclear radiation most likely represents a lower threat than your microwave oven, and is almost certainly less of a threat than the sun.

Why is nuclear radiation such a bogie man? I put it down to the connotations of Hiroshima, the nuclear bomb tests of the 1950s and 60s, and of course Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and a slew of lesser accidents.

The reality is that nuclear events have killed fewer people than coal-mines and other industrial processes related to energy production.

It turns out that the evidence seems to indicate a little bit of radiation is good for us. The key thing is to keep the level within reason - a little sun on the skin is good, being burned to a crisp is not. I recently came across a series of numbers that are reassuring.

In the West each individual is exposed to about 350 millirems per year on average, from a variety of sources including high-speed particles from outer space and our natural environment.

About 200mrem come from Radon gas released from rocks - which is actively pumped out of North American homes but left to stand in the UK and the wider EU.

Everything, including the human body, is naturally radioactive to a degree. By just eating, sleeping and living, with isotopes in our surroundings and in all our food and drink, we just cannot escape it.

So we are exposed to around 30mrem that have every right to be there. We didn't put it there, Mother Nature did. For a change we are not to blame.

Have an X-ray and you will clock up a further 50mrem or so each year. Another 30mrem come from the food we eat. Cosmic rays throw in another 30mrem per year.

Flying the Atlantic adds a further 2mrem, which means I will be clocking up around 6mrem this week, about 12mrem for the month, and even more next month. Ouch.

Curiously, smoke detectors, which are now everywhere on safety grounds, expose us to a further 10mrem. And then, of course, there's us. We are inherently made of carbon atoms and thus inherently radioactive - generating around 40mrem internally.

Aha, I hear the doubters say: what about man-made radiation - nuclear bomb testing, power station accidents and the like? Sorry but that seems to total less than 1mrem/year on average.

Does this amount of radiation do anything detrimental to us? That's hard to say. The problem is that averages tell us very little and are almost useless. What we should be avoiding is protracted exposure in the radioactive hotspots.

If you want to be sure, you have to buy a Geiger counter and check every location as you travel. The other alternative is to look at the average lifespan as it slowly increases, relax, enjoy living, and contemplate all the advantages and advances that radiation and nuclear technology have afforded us.

One final observation. The threat of even more pollution from coal and oil - plus a dwindling oil supply - and the widespread untenable nature of renewable energy will see nuclear power as the only feasible alternative unless we are happy to see the lights go out.

Someone needs to do a heck of a PR job on nuclear.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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