What Is Radiation & How Will It Kill Me?
Editor's Note: Hey, it's Uday, I'm also the editor because I don't have the money to hire an editor. I recently wrote a piece "Why is Nuclear Power Not in the Green New Deal?" which presents nuclear power as an economically and environmentally viable solution to the energy crisis and climate change. To help people understand the subtleties of nuclear power, I'm launching a set of companion pieces in a series I'm calling "How Will It Kill Me?" Today, we tackle radiation.
The frequency of the invocation of the term 'radiation' seems inversely related to the level its users understand it. Oftentimes, it is disingenuously used as a singular, catch-all word for the problems with nuclear power. Think it's environmentally friendly? Think about the radiation. But it's safe, right? Nope, radiation! And unfortunately, it's an effective argument. Just like the word association game with 'nuclear' will bring up 'weapons' and 'bombs' before 'energy', playing it with 'radiation' will probably give you 'cancer', 'Plutonium', and 'death'. Unlike nuclear, there aren't any positives to connote with radiation, but the extent of the negatives is vastly overblown.
Here's the point (spoiler) that I'm going to spend about 3000 words making: radiation might sound scary, but it's not necessarily harmful, and the amount of radiation you can potentially get from a nuclear power plant pales in comparison to the radiation you get every single day.
A quick caveat – Yes, there will be science here. There are a lot of scientific-sounding terms and concepts without which it is impossible to talk about radiation in a meaningful way. I promise it'll be worth it.
Hold on, these words are already confusing.
Before we even get to radiation, let's define a few things:
Protons are positively charged particles, and Neutrons are neutrally charged particles. Together, these two particles make up the Nucleus of an atom. An Element (like Hydrogen, Helium, etc.) is defined by the number of protons it has – for example, Uranium is defined as something that only has exactly 92 protons, and having 92 protons is what makes it Uranium. Electrons are negatively charged particles that surround the nucleus. So, three particles, and the protons are the really important ones.
Isotopes of an element have different numbers of neutrons. So while Uranium will always have 92 protons, it can have 123 neutrons, or perhaps 124 neutrons, all the way up to 150 neutrons. The way this is notated is by adding up the number of protons and neutrons – so Uranium that has 92 protons (by definition) and 143 neutrons will be called Uranium-235 (because 92+143 = 235). If you add three more neutrons, it will be Uranium-238.
We're going to be talking about Special Nuclear Material, which includes materials that can be used for nuclear fuel (or nuclear weapons). This includes Plutonium and specific isotopes of Uranium.
Get comfortable with those words, go back and re-read them if you have to, because I'll use them in context from here on out.
So, what is Radiation?
Radiation, in a pure sense, is energy. If there's anything to remember, remember that. This energy can come in several 'flavors' – you've probably seen the full spectrum of electromagnetic radiation in some textbook or another – there are radio waves, micro waves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays (in order of increasing energy). You can think of all radiation as beams that you can't see, except visible light, which you (hopefully) can see.
Gamma rays are the most energetic (highest energy), and radio waves are the least energetic. So being exposed to a gamma ray is going to be more harmful than a radio wave, because the gamma ray has way more energy. Remember – radiation is energy, and different types of radiation just have different energies.
How Does Radiation… Happen?
Isotopes of special nuclear material are all heavy, meaning that they have lots of protons and neutrons (as opposed to something like Hydrogen, which literally has just one proton, and up to six neutrons). More importantly, they have way more neutrons than protons, an imbalance which makes them unstable. The way these elements deal with this instability is by a process called radioactive decay.
Okay, but what is Decay?
An element can decay into another element by emitting a physical particle that carries energy. This comes down to basic arithmetic. Remember the basic idea of conservation of mass and energy? If you start out with 3 apples, and you end up with 1 apple, those other 2 apples had to go somewhere – either you gave the 2 apples to someone else, or you ate them and converted them into 2 apples' worth of energy. If you're an apple monster made up entirely of apples, and you shoot one of your apples at your archenemy (the orange monster, who you hate being compared to), you have less apples, making you a completely different apple monster, or something.
This particle decay involves something relatively heavy (like Uranium) jettisoning off a piece that's pretty light – alpha particles (helium), beta particles (electrons), or neutrons. Since these are actual physical particles, it's not hard to physically block them – all three of these can be stopped by water, which is why traditional nuclear reactors are typically submerged in tanks of water several feet deep. Since it's virtually impossible for the average person to interact with any particle radiation unless they wander into a room with special nuclear material, we'll avoid any further discussion here.
Another way to decay is by decreasing in energy. To move from a high energy (excited) state to a low energy state, the energy has to go somewhere, and is emitted as an x-ray (if it's electrons that are moving to a less-excited state) or a gamma ray (if it's the nucleus that is moving to a less-excited state). In contrast to the aforementioned particle decay, x-rays and gamma rays have no mass (since they are pure energy), and can hence penetrate through a lot more material without losing too much energy.
Note: An isotope doesn't actually change its identity when emitting an x-ray or gamma ray, it just loses some energy and stays the same thing. For example, say Uranium-235 emits a gamma ray. Following that emission, you'll still have Uranium-235 where the nucleus is at a lower energy state.
Crap, why do things decay again?
It's the neutron-proton imbalance. There's a great visualization of this – it's called the chart of the nuclides, which is like the periodic table on steroids. The periodic table just lists each element, but the chart of the nuclides lists every single isotope by plotting the number of protons against the number of neutrons such that every single isotope in existence is included.
That black line down the middle is the 'valley of stability', which identifies stable isotopes that don't decay. The isotopes above the valley of stability have too many protons, so they will try to get rid of those protons so they can decay until they reach a stable element (via Positron decay, which turns protons into neutrons). Likewise, the isotopes below have too many neutrons, so they will try to get rid of those and move up (via Beta decay, which turns neutrons into protons).
A quick recap: When you say something is Radioactive, it probably has a particle imbalance that makes it unstable, undergoes (radioactive) decay to resolve the instability by shooting off radiation, most importantly gamma rays, which are just energy. Good? Good.
Fine. But Why is Radiation Bad?
Radiation is just energy, but energy in the wrong places can be problematic. When radiation interacts with biological tissue, it can cause harm to that tissue that can manifest itself in adverse health effects. The part of your body exposed to said radiation is also important, because certain organs are more sensitive than others.
Here are all the bad, scary things that could potentially happen, in order of increasing radiation (which I'm only mentioning to not be omissive): mild nausea, damage to bone marrow, decreased blood cell count, diarrhea, temporary sterility, impairment of nervous system, and death. Some delayed effects include cancer, shortening of life (radiation aging), cataracts, and harm to embryos in pregnant women. Most importantly, yes, it'll roast your balls. Phew. Scared enough yet?
Pretty scared. But what does radiation actually do?
Don't worry, you have to get a lot of radiation to get even any the least of those effects. A lot. Like really, a lot. And more importantly, for even the slightest of these things to happen, the radiation has to be Ionizing.
Remember how there are electrons surrounding the nucleus? These electrons exist in different orbitals, or levels. Orbitals further away from the nucleus are higher in energy, so an electron can 'fall' from an outer orbital to an inner one by releasing some energy. Conversely, an electron that absorbs some energy can jump from its orbital to an orbital further away. If an electron is given enough energy, it can escape the nucleus completely. This process is called ionization, whereby an atom loses an electron (a negative particle) and consequently becomes positively charged, or ionized. When ionization occurs inside your body – usually to water – the newly created ion tries to find an electron to replace the one it lost, and will end up binding to things it shouldn't, thus causing damage.
So in order for radiation to be ionizing, it has to have enough energy to fully liberate electrons from atoms. Only ultraviolet, x-ray, and gamma ray radiation have enough energy to be ionizing, and therefore meaningfully harmful. Anything below those energies, like visible light, is (thankfully) not that harmful. Remember, radioactive decay results in x-rays and gamma rays.
So you're saying I should avoid Radiation at all costs?
You probably won't be able to. If you take a look at the chart of the nuclides, it's not just special nuclear materials that decay and emit radiation. A ton of isotopes do – in fact, almost all of them!
The Floor is Lava
Where do we get things like Uranium and Thorium from? They exist underground, along with things like Actinium, Lead, Thallium, and Bismuth, all of which are radioactive. So you literally can not escape it, no matter where you go.
Besides being dry and cloying, bananas have one more downside – they have potassium, which is radioactive. No more bananas in your household!
A gift from the heavens
When stars explode, they let off quite a few particles, including protons that have quite a lot of energy. These protons traveled through the galaxy (over millions of years), wandered into our solar system, and (many of them) made it to Earth with a substantial amount of leftover energy. This is called cosmic radiation, and yes, you're subject to a constant shower of cosmic rays whenever you step foot outside. They aren't harmful, because if they were, literally everyone would be keeling over in agony. When the protons travel through space, there isn't anything that really gets the protons' way (because it's, you know, space), so they barely lose any of their energy. But when they get to Earth's atmosphere, they have to fight through all of the particles in the air. Every time they bounce off something, they lose some energy, and don't have too much left by the time they make it to the ground.
This means that at higher elevations, you'll get more of a dose, since the cosmic rays have to fight through fewer air particles to get to you. Relevantly, you do get a good amount of radiation on a flight, because planes fly about 7 miles up, so you lose the protection of all the air below you. In practical terms, cosmic radiation is only a serious consideration for astronauts, and a fairly significant to space travel outside our solar system. And even if you're an astronaut, cosmic radiation probably isn't too high up on your priority list.
So nuclear radiation will haunt me forever?
Of course, the dose you get from naturally-occurring radioactive material, cosmic rays, and, uh, bananas is minimal. Actually, most of the radiation you get from everyday life probably isn't gamma radiation, and doesn't come from radioactive decay. It's not just nuclear radiation – remember that there are other types of radiation (different energies).
The curse of warmth
The reason you skin tans is due to ultraviolet rays, which are emitted by the sun (which also emits infrared and, of course, visible light). Ultraviolet is on that spectrum of radiation – it's just energy, but not quite as strong as x-rays or gamma rays. Your body, upon feeling ultraviolet rays, produces melanin as a defense mechanism, because melanin protects cells from damage by absorbing this ultraviolet energy. Unfortunately, the sun is indeed racist – white people *need* to be exposed to UV rays in order for melanin to be produced in the first place, meaning that they will take some damage before their body reacts. People with darker skin have continuous melanin production, so they come with factory-installed ultraviolet defenses, which is why rates of skin cancer are a lot lower in non-white folk. Just like any kind of radiation, certain parts of your body are more prone to adverse effects upon feeling the radiation, hence the need for appropriate sunglasses to protect your eyes. Your skin can take a lot more radiation than your eyes can.
From anti-vaxxer to anti-x-er
X-rays are also on that spectrum of radiation. They're slightly less energetic than gamma rays (and come from different places – electrons moving between orbitals result in x-rays, and transitions from inside the nucleus result in gamma rays). And in certain contexts, purposefully bombarding someone with radiation is actually productive.
When you get x-rayed, x-rays are actually being shot through your body. The ones that hit your bones are less likely to get through (attenuation), and the ones that don't hit your bones will get through and hit the target. This is useful for medical purposes, resulting in a map of where your bones are located. It's also useful in a security context, specifically the TSA machines at the airport (the ones where you have to give the illuminati symbol) that can effectively see 'through' your clothes and whether you have an object on your person that the x-rays wouldn't get through. These are all extremely small doses – the most dose you can get from a standard medical test is from a CAT (CT) scan, which is a very safe procedure.
The destructive purposes of radiation can also be harnessed for a good purpose. Remember how radiation is harmful to biological tissue? Radiation therapy uses the power of radioactivity to fight cancer. Cancer is when you have an excessive growth of cells that eventually gets big enough to affect and damage nearby organs by diverting essential resources like oxygen and glucose. Radiation (also mostly x-rays) can be focused on the area where the tumor has formed, to murder the cancerous cells quite literally in cold blood. Here, radiation is purposefully being used for its harmful effects. Radiation does not discriminate (ordinarily a good thing), and hence ends up killing normal cells that get caught in the crossfire, resulting in things like hair loss and other effects.
To put these in context of nuclear accidents, a cross-country flight will give you almost as much dose as you'd get by poking around Chernobyl for an hour right now. Getting a CAT scan will give you about seven times as much of a dose as you would have gotten by touring Fukushima for an hour the day after the tsunami hit.
Don't use your laptop on your lap top.
Laptops, cell phones, and many consumer electronics also emit radiation in the form of radio waves, which are at the very lowest end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio waves are an example of non-ionizing radiation – they don't have enough energy to liberate electrons from atoms. Since they can't actually liberate the electrons, this energy will result in heat, which is largely harmless. There's no experimentally proven link between radio waves and any serious health effects.
Is it possible to stop Radiation?
The amount of radiation that your body is exposed to matters – less radiation over a longer period of time is not going to be as impactful as a sudden, instantaneous burst. The three key variables to mitigating the effects of radiation are (1) time, (2) distance, and (3) shielding. So if the radiation starts out at a certain energy depending on the type of radiation, you want to get that energy as low as possible before it gets to you – by getting far away from it as quickly as possible and putting obstacles (like water) between you and the source.
The science is cool and all. But what does it mean for me?
Nothing. Seriously. I know that sounds like I'm being a shill because I like nuclear power, but that's the truth.
Come on, be real. What do I have to worry about when it comes the radiation effects of nuclear power?
Every employee that works in a nuclear facility (not necessarily a nuclear reactor or power plant, but any facility where there are considerable amounts of radioactive materials) wears a device called a dosimeter that tracks how much radiation dose they're getting. For the majority of them, their quarterly radiation reports will show straight zeroes. The average annual dose for a worker is estimated to be half the dose of a single mammogram, one-seventh of the dose of a single spinal x-ray, and one-tenth of the dose you get from natural radiation every year!
That's for someone who, again, is working *inside* of a nuclear facility. So you can imagine that it doesn't matter if you drive past a power plant every day, live near one, or voluntarily choose to have lunch at the gates because you enjoy the view – you will not get any kind of non-negligible dose. More than a third of Americans live within fifty miles of a nuclear reactor.
Reactors are surrounded by tons of shielding – from pools of water to feet of concrete and steel – in addition to engineered controls like control rods (that stop the reaction automatically if something goes wrong) and a negative pressure differential (which will suck air into the building if there's some kind of a breach). And this isn't even considering all of the passive safety systems in new reactors that either stop or fully contain the situation if something goes wrong. Add that to the fact that nuclear power plants have the lowest accident rate in history, and that a power plant can't 'explode' in the same way that a bomb can (go back and read the original piece), and you really really reeeally don't have to worry about the effects of radiation from nuclear power.
If you say so. Can you do one of those recap things, a tl;dr of sorts?
*Grumbling* just go back and read it again! But once you close this tab, here's a pretty little top ten:
1. Radiation is energy.
2. Some radiation (non-ionizing) is harmless, and some (ionizing) is harmful.
3. Nuclear stuff is heavy, and that makes it unstable, which makes it decay.
4. This decay mainly results in gamma rays, which are ionizing.
5. You're getting radiation all the time. So it can't be all that bad.
6. Nuclear radiation comes from food (like bananas), cosmic radiation from outside the solar system, and naturally occurring material in the ground. These are unavoidable.
7. You can get other (non-nuclear) radiation in a medical setting (x-rays), from the sun (ultraviolet), or from regular electronics (microwaves). The latter isn't ionizing, and the other two are fine in moderation.
8. You don't have to worry about radiation from nuclear power plants.
9. Seriously, you don't have to worry about radiation from nuclear power plants.
10. Once more for the people in the back: you do NOT have to worry about radiation from nuclear power plants. You're far enough away and there is enough stuff between you that you're probably going to get exactly zero dose from a power plant.
Easy, right? Class dismissed.
*Note: The primary purpose of this piece is to communicate qualitative themes about nuclear power, and hence intentionally does not cite the sources for the statistics presented. Readers are encouraged to research these important topics, particularly in peer-reviewed scientific journals, for confirmation.