Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fear, Uncertainty, and Government Policy

If you are living under a rock, you probably don't know that today is the anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, (that's what the Japanese are calling it) and the resulting disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Otherwise, you probably have heard something about it. There has been much talk about radiation. Much talk, but very little in the way of hard numbers are available, you have to review several articles to discover all of the various radioactive isotopes that there are to worry about. (And even then can you be sure? I suppose there is an official inventory somewhere.) Still, some truth has managed to get out there. It will be discounted.

Fukushima's Refugees Are Victims Of Irrational Fear, Not Radiation - Forbes
Every time I eat a bag of potato chips I think of Fukushima. This 12-ounce bag of chips has 3500 picoCuries of gamma radiation in it, and the number of bags I eat a year gives me a dose as high as what I would receive living in much of the evacuated zones around Fukushima. But unlike the Fukushima refugees, I get to stay in my home. We live in a nuanced world of degree. Eating a scoop of ice cream is fine, eating a gallon at one time is bad. Jumping off a chair is no big deal; jumping off a cliff is really stupid. The numbers matter. It’s the dose that makes the poison. There is a threshold to everything.
Of course it is no surprise that Americans are clueless when it comes to radiation. Recent generations seem to take pride in the fact that they don't understand science and math, don't want to understand science and math, and are too cool to study anything so geeky. (These are the folks #Occupying $Place because no one told them that for a college degree to actually pay, it needs to be in something useful, like chemistry, or engineering.)

First off, radiation isn't something new in the world. The world itself is radioactive (some parts more than others - a bit more on this later.) Radiation streams down on us from outer space. Lots of our food is radioactive. And yes, we are radioactive. I found one story which stated global background radiation is a result of the nuclear testing in the 1940s. Plutonium levels found near Fukushima plant probably pose little risk, study says. Not! It is a part of the universe. You can't get away from it. Even if you go live in a fallout shelter there will be radiation.

But as the first story points out, government policy is based on the idea that we can eliminate all radiation exposure.
This idea, known as the Linear No-Threshold Dose hypothesis (LNT), was adopted in 1959 as the global regulating philosophy and remains entrenched against all scientific evidence. It is an ethical nightmare. And it will destroy Japan’s economy.

It‘s keeping 100,000 Japanese citizens as refugees, as it did almost a million Ukrainians. It will waste $100 billion that’s needed to rebuild the devastation from the tsunami, not protect against a large intake of potato chips. It will cause more injury to Japan’s already beleaguered population and damaged economy, for no benefit.
I said that some parts of the world are more radioactive than others. Australia is on average less radioactive than North America. Parts of Europe are higher in background radiation. Indeed natural background radiation in some parts of Europe and India are HIGHER than the allowed exposure for nuclear plant workers. (You can't build nuclear plants in those areas, because you could never come in under the limits. People living in those places already receive doses higher than the allowed maximum. I'm almost surprised they haven't evacuated those areas.)

From Wikipedia (take it with a grain of iodized salt) we get the following:
  • Maximum acceptable dose for the public from any man made facility: 1 mSv/year
  • Dose from living near a nuclear power station: 0.0001–0.01 mSv/year
  • Dose from living near a coal-fired power station: 0.0003 mSv/year
  • Dose from sleeping next to a human for 8 hours every night: 0.02 mSv/year
  • Dose from cosmic radiation (from sky) at sea level: 0.24 mSv/year
  • Dose from terrestrial radiation (from ground): 0.28 mSv/year
  • Dose from natural radiation in the human body: 0.40 mSv/year
  • Dose from standing in front of the granite of the United States Capitol building: 0.85 mSv/year
  • Average individual background radiation dose: 2 mSv/year; 1.5 mSv/year for Australians, 3.0 mSv/year for Americans
  • Dose from atmospheric sources (mostly radon): 2 mSv/year
  • Total average radiation dose for Americans: 6.2 mSv/year
  • New York-Tokyo flights for airline crew: 9 mSv/year
  • Current average dose limit for nuclear workers: 20 mSv/year
  • Dose from background radiation in parts of Iran, India and Europe: 50 mSv/year
  • Dose from smoking 30 cigarettes a day: 60–80 mSv/year
So what is the point of all this?

You can't eliminate all radiation. You can't eliminate all risk. Limits should be derived from some solid basis, but in too many cases, and especially when anyone says the dreaded word "nuclear," rationality goes out the window. And we do stupid, cruel things as a result.
The amount of funding the U.S. spent since 1990 protecting against what, in many parts of the world, are background levels of radiation, could have immunized the entire continent of Africa against its three worst scourges. Instead we saved not one life. This is an ethical issue. The science is easy, the politics are not.
50,000 people will die on our nation's highways this year (maybe a bit less). Do we stop driving? Some number of people will be hit by trains. Some will choke to death eating vegetables. Should we eliminate all these things? I for one would hate to give up broccoli in cheese sauce.

There was mention at one time of Japan planting sunflowers in affected areas to take up the cesium in the soil. This was mocked by people who don't know why it might be a good idea, or what sunflowers have to do with cesium. There is almost no discussion in the press about the various isotopes, their half-lives, what their radiation effects are and if they have any long-term affects. (Not only is the cesium around Fukushima radioactive, but cesium is a heavy metal - problematic even when it isn't radioactive.) There is no talk of planting sunflowers and dealing with the seeds. Instead, I'm sure they will spend billions of Yen to move topsoil. More money. More time. Less benefit. Sounds like government at work to me.

And yes, planting sunflowers or Brazil nuts would be one approach because sunflower seeds and Brazil nuts are high in cesium. (For a related discussion, see my post on the Banana Equivalent Dose - that's right, bananas are radioactive.)

4 comments:

Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

Heck, I can't get past the press saying "the reactors exploded." No, it was hydrogen trapped in the outer building, not the reactor.

I'm usually so busy yelling at the tv over that basic error that everything following it is either lost or sounds like Charlie Brown's teacher. It does remind me not to take the media seriously about anything without double checking it myself, though.

Zendo Deb said...

The 2nd article I cite is amazing to me. Nuclear background radiation is the fault of nuclear testing in the 40s. What a load of crap.

These people pretend to be experts in everything. But they are experts in nothing.

Graybeard said...

Excellent post, Deb.

It was done kind of early, so I'm not sure the numbers for the Fukishima reactor workers are right, but did you see the XKCD Radiation poster?

Zendo Deb said...

Yeah, I love that chart. Especially since one of the first things it points out is that sleeping in the same bed with another person ups your radiation.

It also does a great job of pointing out 1 - that we can detect insanely small doses of radiation and 2 - you don't need to be upset about every bit of radiation.