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Occasionally power reactors in the US have released radionuclides in insignificant amounts. The NRC strictly regulates the permissible amount and the average annual radiation from nuclear plants falls way below that.  From coal plants, about a hundred times more radioactivity is released.  It's unregulated.  So is coal waste.  An average plant concentrates enough U-235 a year to make several atomic bombs.

Annual exposure from natural background radiation in US:  about 260 millirem
Diagnostic and therapeutic radiation exposure, annual average: about 60 millirem. 1 CT scan to head and body: 1,100 millirem.
Coal combustion:  about 1-2 millirem
Nuclear power:  .009 millirem.

People assume that the steam coming out of cooling towers of nuclear plants must be radioactive.  In fact it's from a secondary or tertiary, closed system--it's entirely separate from the water cooling the reactor core.

No question that nuclear power is cleaner and safer than fossil fuel power, as a study by the EU stated several years ago.

No question that if uranium supplies run low thorium could be used instead.

Incidentally, people living in the part of India where there are thorium formations are exposed to very high levels of natural background radiation--higher than those exposures found around Chernobyl.  Several hundred millirem  And the population is doing fine, as is a population in China living on thorium sands.

A big recommend for Devilstower.

by Plan9 on Fri Jul 8th, 2005 at 11:02:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the info.

So, higher levels of some radiation may be harmless.

I saw a 60 minutes expose of Nuclear power vents, and they made it sound a lot worse than you just did. I trust your knowledge more.

by Upstate NY on Fri Jul 8th, 2005 at 11:05:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You're welcome.  The truth is just not sensational enough to satisfy media appetities.

Unfortunately, sensational coverage about nuclear power scares people and this is very helpful to the coal industry, which is growing rapidly.  Germany, for example, is increasing its reliance on coal combustion.  About a hundred new coal plants are likely to be built in the US.

I wish 60 Minutes would do a show about the large number of deaths caused by fossil fuel combustion.  Those figures are well-documented.

People around nuclear plants get more exposure to radioactivity from eating bananas and legumes.  They contain a radioactive isotope of potassium.  In fact, we all get an average of 39 millirem per year from the food we consume.

I am not afraid of nuclear power, having investigated its risks.  You know what I am afraid of?  Global warming.  Its effects will cause millions of deaths of humans and extinction of many species.  

We have the solution right now to mitigating human contribution to global warming while providing baseload electricity.

by Plan9 on Sat Jul 9th, 2005 at 11:21:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I am prepared to believe that nuclear power generation is safer in operation and in emissions than hydrocarbon-fuelled power, but what about the radioactive waste?  But can we guarantee safe storage for the necessary (very lengthy!) period of time?
by canberra boy (canberraboy1 at gmail dot com) on Mon Jul 11th, 2005 at 03:06:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Nope, you can't guarantee ANYTHING. What you can do is get the waste problem to the point where the probability of a resultant death is comparable to (or, as currently required, orders of magnitude less than) the probability of a death from, say, coal mining, for the same amount of energy.

For various historical reasons nuclear power is held to impossibly high standards of perfection, while we accept high fatality rates in coal and hydroelectric power generation.

by asdf on Mon Jul 11th, 2005 at 02:20:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I am curious about this anecdotal evidence of the "safety" of radiation exposure as it directly contradicts the most recent NAS report
WASHINGTON - June 30 - The National Academies of Science released an over 700-page report yesterday on the risks from ionizing radiation. The BEIR VII or seventh Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation report on "Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation" reconfirmed the previous knowledge that there is no safe level of exposure to radiation--that even very low doses can cause cancer. Risks from low dose radiation are equal or greater than previously thought. The committee reviewed some additional ways that radiation causes damage to cells.

Among the reports conclusions are:

There is no safe level or threshold of ionizing radiation exposure.

Even exposure to background radiation causes some cancers. Additional exposures cause additional risks.

Radiation causes other health effects such as heart disease and stroke, and further study is needed to predict the doses that result in these non-cancer health effects.

It is possible that children born to parents that have been exposed to radiation could be affected by those exposures.

The "bystander effect" is an additional, newly recognized method by which radiation injures cells that were not directly hit but are in the vicinity of those that were. "Genomic instability" can be caused by exposure to low doses of radiation and according to the report "might contribute significantly to radiation cancer risk." These new mechanisms for radiation damage were not included in the risk estimates reported by the BEIR VII report, but were recommended for further study.

The Linear-No-Threshold model (LNT) for predicting health effects from radiation (dose-response) is retained, meaning that every exposure causes some risk and that risks are generally proportional to dose. The Dose and Dose-Rate Effectiveness Factor or DDREF which had been suggested in the 1990 BEIR V report to be applied at low doses, has been reduced from 2 to 1.5. That means the projected number of health effects at low doses are greater than previously thought.


The BEIR VII risk numbers indicate that about 1 in 100 members of the public would get cancer if exposed to 100 millirads (1milliGray) per year for a 70-year lifetime.[1] This is essentially the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's allowable radiation dose for members of the public.

In addition, 1 in about 5 workers[2] would get cancer if exposed to the legally allowable occupational doses[3] over their 50 years in the workforce. These risks are much higher than permitted for other carcinogens.

Specifically, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows members of the public to get 100 millirems or mr (1 milliSievert or mSv) per year of radiation in addition to background. The BEIR VII report (page 500, Table 12-9) estimates that this level will result in approximately 1 (1.142) cancer in every 100 people exposed at 100 mr/yr which includes 1 fatal cancer in every 175 people so exposed (5.7 in 1000)[4].

The risk of getting cancer from radiation (in BEIR VII) is increased by about a third from current government risk figures (FGR13):

BEIR VII estimates that 11.42 people will get cancer if 10,000 are each exposed to a rem (1,000 millirems or 10 mSv).

The US Environmental Protection Agency Federal Guidance Report 13 estimates that 8.46 people will get cancer if 10,000 are each exposed to a rem. [... more ...]

cited here (press release) and here (article).

In other words the US scientific establishment, despite various pressures from the nuke and energy lobby, has officially declared that its previous take on the danger of low-dosage radiation risk was overly optimistic and has revised its risk estimates upward, not downward.

In light of this one has to suspect that indigenous populations living on or near natural geologic radiation sources (a) are reproducing fast enough to compensate for attrition from cancer and related effects and thus appear to be "doing fine" despite a steady component of radiation-related mortality, or (b) over centuries have been selected genetically for resistance to radiation damage.  Presumably populations without this adaptation would not fare so well...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Jul 11th, 2005 at 04:18:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What's the consequence of that for all medical exams and treatments that use radiation?

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Jul 11th, 2005 at 06:12:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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