Keeping Media Honest on Radiation
Author: Dr. Manuel Vega
Alumni from University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez and PhD in chemistry from the University of Illinois - Chicago with a specialty on nano biomaterials
During the last year, the topic of nuclear energy has captured the attention of the media in Puerto Rico –from articles from the now decommissioned BONUS reactor to the public hearings on advanced reactors at the House of Representatives. But since the premiere of the HBO hit series “Chernobyl”, the discussion in the local media has taken a new turn and focus - the effects of radiation on the population. An example of this is a recent article from El Nuevo Dia, Puerto Rico’s most viewed newspaper, where the discussion highlights the five most radioactive places on Earth. The article correctly points out places in the world where radiation is in higher doses relatively speaking. However, the article errs in addressing one key question – what are the effects of such radiation levels on the public? Leaving this question unanswered could certainly lead to misleading perceptions on radiation. Moreover, it could lead to ungrounded views of nuclear energy.
We know already the magnitude of the Chernobyl disaster. Most of the radiation released to air were fission products iodine-131, cesium-134 and cesium 137. Iodine-131 has a short half-life of eight days, while cesium isotopes have a longer half-life of 30 years approximately. However, the number of deaths directly related to radiation was only 31. Even in the period between 1991 – 2015, the number of deaths caused by cancer and health issues related to radiation has been lower than it was feared. Nowadays, Chernobyl has no habitants, but as the level of radiation has been lowered through the years, nature has found the way to revive. It is surprising the amount of wildlife that has grown in this region.
The most recent nuclear emergency happened during the great earthquake that affects Japan in March 2011. Although the earthquake did not cause the emergency, the tsunami that followed the earthquake disabled the power supply and cooling system of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors causing the nuclear accident. Only three deaths related to the earthquake and tsunami were reported, but no death related to radiation was reported.
Other places like Hanford, also mentioned in the article, the reactors have been cooled by water from the Columbia River. Although there is still some radioactive contamination in the area, the levels of radioactivity in the river is lower than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limit of 4 millirems per year.
One of the major fears related to nuclear power is the exposition to radiation. Every single day we are in contact with different types of radiation. The most common is the wide range of radiation frequencies from the Sun. The radiation is extended from infrared to ultraviolet (UV) light. Also, we are exposed to radiation from other non-natural sources such as cell phones antenna and the X-Rays used in medical offices.
When we think in nuclear reactors, it is the radiation caused by nuclear decay from radioactive elements such as uranium or plutonium that cause the major fear. Uranium is part of the 90 elements that can be found in nature in a significant amount. In the case of plutonium, the amount that can be found in nature is minimal. Nevertheless, these two elements by nature are radioactive, meaning that the nucleus of their respective atoms is not stable and suffers nuclear decay-producing ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation is radiation with enough energy to remove a bound electron from an atom. It is known that interactions of ionizing radiation with DNA molecules can cause chemical changes to the biomolecule causing alterations in the cellular function of living beings. However, the amount of ionizing radiation in nature is still in levels that have no significant effect on organisms.
Advances in scientific research and in engineering technology, nuclear reactors are built under strict conditions keeping the level of radiation under the limits accepted by EPA. Nuclear materials are stored in containers made of concrete keeping them in a safe environment. Research on the use of concrete to store nuclear waste coincide in the effectiveness of this material for such purpose. The only limitation can be the durability of the concrete in contact with the environment that surrounds the composite. It is known that concrete can suffer degradation by reaction with carbon dioxide and humidity present in the environment. However, correct treatment can keep the concrete in optimal conditions and increasing its lifespan.
In conclusion, nuclear power is safer and cleaner than the media and other sources are trying us to believe. Current sources of energy such as fossil fuels and natural gas produce more toxic products than the one produces by nuclear reactions. High-level amounts of carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, hydrogen sulfides, and nitrogen oxides are among the products and byproducts from combustion of fuels. Such levels affect our health and the health of the infrastructure. In general, nuclear power is the most effective and clean energy solution.