Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Trouble? Not really.

I was recently made aware of this article, explaining how "Radioactive Water From Fukushima Is Systematically Poisoning The Entire Pacific Ocean" (not really- we're going to look into that in this blog post). First, let me point out: that article is written not by a nuclear physicist, but by an attorney (someone who stands to gain from class action lawsuits) - well, a former attorney who now publishes "the truth" - a very conspiracy-theory oriented "online paper" (if you want the link, look in the article) including info about how our sun is actually starting to shut down - and a recent book, "The Beginning Of The End" (and, yes, he capitalizes the article "the" in his reference to the title, which I've copied here), which I'll admit I've not read, but a glance at the first sentence of his description was enough.

Anyway, if you've seen this article, don't worry! There's really nothing to worry about. Read on and I'll explain.

According to the article's author, Michael T. Snyder, we're all about to die from the massive amount of radiation that is escaping the damaged Fukushima reactors into the Pacific ocean. How massive? Well, apparently Tepco ("Tokyo Electric Power COmpany") has admitted that between 20 and 40 trillion becquerels of tritium (that's Hydrogen 3, if you care) has "probably" been leaked, "likely" into the Pacific ocean. Sounds really bad, right? Well, 40 trillion becquerels is, assuming I can remember my math and/or my metric prefixes, roughly 1000 curies. But 1k curies of what? Primarily beta radiation. And, per this calculator, that's roughly an equivalent dose of 0 at 1 cm distance. And that's if it's a point source. Now, imagine this "40 trillion becquerels" dispersed into the Pacific ocean, which contains some 700,000 trillion litres of water. Granted, that's the whole Pacific; say it's dispersed across 1% of the Pacific: that's 7,000 trillion gallons of water, or .0057 becquerels per litre. If you convert that to picocuries, .0057 becquerels/litre equates to roughly 1.5 picocuries/litre. An NRC page shows that were you to drink tritium-water at 1000 times this level (1600 picocuries/litre) for a year, your radiation dose would be 0.3 millirem (mrem), which is roughly 1000 times lower than the approximate 300 mrem dose from natural background radiation. In other words, the 1.5 picocuries/litre water you'd be drinking would roughly be nothing. In fact, I'd say you're probably more likely to get some bacteria from the water, or even just have bad effects from drinking salt water in the first place. :)  Also, the radiation from tritium is beta radiation, which is a low-energy type of radiation. Can it hurt you? Sure, any radiation can, and the EPA even has information on what tritium will do once inside the body. However, it leaves the body relatively quickly and, because of the low energy level of the radiation, it's "one of the least dangerous radionuclides." And, by the way, cosmic rays create tritium in air molecules, and as a result, it's found in small or trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. So, you're probably already getting something like that 1.5 picocuries/litre in your drinking water.

But wait, what about the Strontium-90 and the Cesium-137? Apparently Tepco has found Sr90 ad levels "30 times the permissible rate" that are making their way into the groundwater which "usually flows to the sea." Again, Sr90 is already "widely dispersed in the environment and food chain" - per the EPA. Roughly 20-30% of ingested Sr90 is absorbed into the bone (it's similar to Calcium in its properties), which is bad - bone cancer is bad. But what is the "safe level"? Well, per this report, it was detected at six times the safety limit, at 170,000 becquerels/cubic meter in seawater (I'm going to start using the abbreviation, Bq, for becquerels, 'cause I'm tired of typing it so much). That's 170k Bq/ 1k litres, or 170 Bq/litre. That sounds pretty bad, especially compared to the miniscule amounts of tritium from the prior paragraph. But is it? That's measured "right at the source" (and, by the way, the amount of tritium detected was less there, 120Bq/L, than the amount in the article I'm discussing - in fact, that tritium level is well under the limits specified by the Reactor Regulation of 60,000 Bq/L); now imagine that 170 Bq/litre dispersed over the 7,000 trillion gallons of water in the Pacific before it reaches North America. Tougher to estimate here, as I don't know the sample size (and thus the total amount), but even if it's at 1/100 ratio by the time it hits a North American shore, that's 1.7 Bq/L, or 460 picocuries/L. Probably it would be much lower. Based on this randomly accessed radionuclide safety data sheet (probably from Hong Kong), "annual limit on intake" of Sr90 is 110,000 Bq, or 64,700 litres of (sea)water, or 177 litre/day. Don't know about you, but I'd be going to the bathroom a lot after drinking that much water, and I think the Sr90 wouldn't have enough time in my system to be absorbed into the bones at 20-30% level (it'd be flushed out too quickly). By the way, in case you didn't know, Sr90 isn't a naturally occurring isotope... and most of what's in our environment is left over from nuclear weapons testing in the past decades.

Cesium-137? 17Bq/L. Not even worth talking about. Granted, this article claims higher numbers (but doesn't have a report cited, only saying that Tepco said; other articles seem to be in at least slight agreement). But, really, if you're worried about the Cs137 and Sr90 increasing, dillution is your friend! It would be better to pump the contaminated water into the Pacific and allow it to disperse there, where it will be dissipated to nearly undetectable levels, vs. sitting around in the groundwater or evaporating and either going airborne during evaporation or leaving radioactive isotopes on the ground (where they could become airborne if struck by something or stirred by wind). And the seawater makes an excellent shield against radiation anyway (this page explains how swimming in a "spent nuclear fuel rod" containment pool would likely lead to a lower radiation dose than standing outside the pool!).

The comparison of Fukushima to Chernobyl? Not even close. Even though Chernobyl may have had less fuel, the damage to the containment was far greater, and the spread of radioactive material was much more significant. "Please share this article with as many people as you can," he says; of course - he wants to sell his books and get his advertising links revenue off his website. And maybe to get called to be part of a class action lawsuit. "The damage that is being done is absolutely incalculable" - well, he's not a nuclear physicist, so I wouldn't expect him to be able to calculate nuclear quantities, but it is, in fact, calculable, and "systematically poisoning the entire Pacific ocean" - well, if all 700,000 trillion litres of Pacific ocean were available to become a sink for the Fukushima radioactive material, that would be superb: the material would be so dispersed as to be virtually undetectable, and we'd never have to hear doomsday prophets like this guy talking about Fukushima again.

Don't worry about Fukushima; you're going to be OK, even if you live on the coast of California. Well, then again, if you're in California, there are other things to worry about, like earthquakes and politicians.

1 comment:

Hence said...

Ignore or delete previous comment. Commencing revised edition:

And laws.

I'm really glad you did the math for me on that one.