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Reversing radiation's bad PR

Posting in Energy
Would you eat a banana? Would you install a smoke detector in your home? Would you visit California's glorious Yosemite National Park?

Those aren't vexing questions. So let's try this one: Would you want nuclear power? 

Many people would roar "no" to that interrogative.  The tamer ones would say, "Get lost. All that radioactivity?! Forget it!" The more hotheaded types - of which there are many - would chose spicier words. 

To them, I'd reply: You'll get far more radiation from your bananas, smoke detectors and trips to Yosemite than you ever ever will from a nuclear power plant.

That's how I interpret a concise, handy new guide called Radiation: The Facts by former Dartmouth professor Robert Hargraves.

"Radiation is safe within limits," Hargraves reminds us throughout the easy-to-read 6-page brochure.

His point: The public is so misinformed about radiation that it is missing a golden opportunity to move the world onto a low-CO2 diet by shifting to nuclear power. In his words: 

"Nuclear power is a green environmental solution. It generates no CO2. The fuel is cheap and inexhaustible.
Green nuclear power can solve the global crises of air pollution deaths and climate change. Cheap energy can help developing nations escape poverty and let industrialized nations improve economic growth.
Is it safe? The primary obstacle to nuclear power is misunderstanding of radiation safety."
Hargraves doesn't actually state that bananas and smoke detectors give us more radiation than nuclear plants do, but that's the message between the lines. (He does indeed point out that bananas and smoke detectors emit. To those of you who have seen the pro-nuclear film Pandora's Promise, who can forget the irony-laced scene where the anti-nuke protestors take a break to eat sustenance-giving bananas?)

To add my own observation:  Except in the rare, unlucky instances when nuclear plants go wrong - Fukushima and Chernobyl for instance - they do not emit radiation to the general public. It's all contained. And get this: The average coal plant has spewed far more radiation over the years than has nuclear. Coal operators are allowed to do this under "naturally occurring radioactive materials" (NORM) exemptions.

But back to the brochure. Hargraves reminds us that in our daily lives we encounter constant natural background radiation from sources like "cosmic rays, breathing radon, ingestion of food and water, and proximity to rocks such as granite" (There's your Yosemite. I love its granite cliffs and domes. Next time I'm there I'll blow a kiss to their radiation).

He points out that people living in places like Denver and Finland incur higher natural background radiation - presumably because they are closer to the sun. Yet are they aglow?

Hargraves debunks an old guideline called "Linear No Threshold" (LNT) that states that the cumulative effect of repeated exposure to radiation can be devastating. "It's wrong," Hargraves states, pointing out that the human body has natural healing powers that overcome any damage from small doses of radiation.

Now, do not take any of this as a cue to throw caution to the wind. Yes, radiation can kill. Be careful with the stuff.

But that's not a reason to oppose nuclear power. Especially alternative forms of nuclear reactors under development in some countries, which improve nuclear's safety performance to an even higher level, and which auger advancements in economics, operations and waste management over today's reactors. 

Hargraves is particularly keen on a reactor that uses liquid thorium fuel instead of solid uranium, as he makes clear in his book Thorium: Energy cheaper than coal (he is also an adviser to Flibe Energy, one of several startup companies that is developing a liquid reactor).

Yes, it's time for more nuclear power. 

And for that to happen, it's time for the public to take a more measured view of radiation. Not only is radiation all around us, it sustains us in many ways. The radioactive decay of Earth's core provides much of the heat that keeps us alive on the planet. Radiation sterilizes food. Radiation serves us broadly in the medical field, both as a diagnostic and therapeutic tool. In fact we are currently enduring a shortage of medical isotopes, which we could rectify if we had more nuclear reactors from which to pull them.

Radiation reminds me of the albatross: It performs wondrous things and it generally doesn't harm you, yet it has a villainous reputation. The bird made famous in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner can fly incredible distances with a single flap of the wings. The feathery creature used to be a good omen, until Samuel Taylor Coleridge's seafarer got hold of one and turned it into an impediment around  your neck.

Likewise, radiation can do so much good for mankind. It can provide clean power and medical miracles. Let it spread its wings.

Updated Jan. 29 around 10:05 a.m. PST adding reference to alternative nuclear's improved waste management

Cover photo of Half Dome at Yosemite is from Diliff via Wikimedia

The land of milk and honey - and radiation:


Nuclear innovations, on SmartPlanet:


— By on January 29, 2014, 7:05 AM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure