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  • Japan Earthquake


    What’s the Difference between Radiation and Contamination, and Who Gives a Crap?

     Recent news coverage of the unfolding nuclear power plant failures in Japan in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami provides just the latest example of erroneous information provided to the general public. Nobody questions the factual basis for what they hear in the news, either because they are too uniformed to know the facts, or because they believe the general public is too ignorant and too happy with their ignorance to be capable of comprehending actual facts.

    Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, I will proceed on the assumption that the general public is capable of understanding the facts, and of understanding why a fact-based view is better than the oversimplified, misleading, and just plain wrong information they get in the mainstream news media.

    Let’s give it a try.

    How many times in recent days have you heard of possible or impending “radiation leaks” from the damaged reactors? It’s ludicrous 

    “Radiation” is not the issue. The problem, and what is actually happening, is leakage of contamination.

    What’s the difference? Am I simply engaging in pedantry by insisting that there is a difference and that it matters? Maybe if you understood the difference you would see that it really is significant and that it really does matter.

    Here’s the difference: Radiation is a transitory thing. It exists for nanoseconds and then it is gone. Contamination is a more long-lasting thing. It exists for months or years (or millennia , in some cases).

    So, which is a bigger problem?

    It is important to realize that, in small amounts, radiation is no problem at all. But rather small amounts of contamination can present enormous risks to life and health.

    Contamination emits radiation. But didn’t I just say that radiation is no problem at all? No, I said radiation in small amounts is no problem at all. If you’ve got contamination emitting radiation for months and years, you’ve got a problem.

    One analogy I heard when I was a nuclear reactor operator back in a previous century was this: Radiation is like the smell of dog crap, and contamination is like dog crap.

    If you’re out walking on your lawn and there’s a pile of dog crap, you smell it, you walk away, and the smell is no longer with you. If the smell of dog crap was going to harm you, its harm is done and there’s nothing to be done about it. If you didn’t get enough smell of dog crap to do you any harm, you’re okay, even though you got a little smell of dog crap.

    But if you step in the dog crap and get it on your shoe, you’ve got contamination. Everywhere you walk, you leave little spots of dog crap, difficult for anyone to see, but emitting their smell of dog crap to anyone in the vicinity. You bring the dog crap into your house, where it continues to pummel you with small amounts of dog crap smell hour after hour, day after day. Little pieces of dried-up dog crap drift into the air and you inhale them, and they become lodged in your nose and in your lungs where they can deliver their dog-crap smell exactly where it does the most harm hour after hour, day after day.


    So, if those Japanese nuclear power plants had their radiation shielding removed and all their dog-crap smell was released, it would be no problem at all. Everybody could see the pile of dog crap and stay well away from it. That would be a release of radiation, and it would be no big deal.

    But if the pile of dog crap inside the power plant melts down and strikes water and a steam explosion blasts all the dog crap into the air, there is a problem. Little microscopic bits of dog crap dust would drift across the countryside, getting into the water, into the soil, into the air, etc. Everyone in northern Japan would be at risk of getting dog crap on them and into their digestive and respiratory systems without even knowing it, and these little bits of dog crap would damage their internal organs and slowly kill them in ways that actual dog crap could never do. That would be a release of contamination, and that would be a catastrophe of greater long-term potential harm than the immediate effects of an earthquake or a tsunami.

    Now, when you hear the news reports of possible release of “radiation,” you will know it’s a bunch of crap.

    Okay, you want another illustration? Let’s try a parallel with actual electromagnetic radiation (although not all radiation from nuclear reactor fuel is electromagnetic). 

    Suppose light was something dangerous. Suppose the nuclear power plant was a great big pile of little tiny flashlights with no off switches and very long-lasting batteries.

    Now, suppose somebody lifted the lid on the power plant and let the light out. No problem! You hide behind a wall or a mountain, and the light doesn’t get you. That’s a release of radiation.

    But suppose somebody broke the containment vessel and scattered the tiny flashlights all over the countryside. You can’t hide behind a wall or a mountain, because some of the flashlights are on your side of the wall or mountain. That’s contamination.

    It would not be safe to live in that area until all the flashlights’ batteries went dead.

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