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Confusion about Fallout
Fallout is essentially the ash and dirt particles caused by large explosions and/or the demolition of large structures, which was so graphically displayed by the collapse of the World Trade Centers in 2001. The biological effects of the fallout of dust and microscopic debris on 9/11/2001 were unquestionably horrible. Nuclear weapon’s fallout has the added biological hazard of being intensely radioactive. It's the instantaneous avalanche of neutrons spewed forth by a nuclear weapon detonation that makes the dispersed dust and debris radioactive. Neutron is the only form of radiation which can cause other materials to become radioactive. The avalanche of neutrons is the only reason why atomic bomb fallout is radioactive. Thus with nuclear fallout, the air is not only fouled by the thick fog of dust, the dust is also significantly radioactive.
The thick dust fog scenario is virtually impossible for power plant reactor accidents, even for the worst-ever nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl. The invisible concentrations of microscopic radioactive dust and radioactive gasses from Chernobyl were considerable and resulted in significant short-term biological consequences. But, even the atmospheric release of radioactive material from Chernobyl was many, many times less concentrated than would be the case with nuclear weapon’s fallout. However, this comparison only holds for Chernobyl, a type of nuclear plant only built by the old USSR; a type of plant judged by America to be too dangerous to be considered, soon after World War II. The plants used in the West cannot have Chernobyl-type accidents, and the worst possible invisible radioactive release from a Western nuclear power plant is thousands, if not millions of times less than Chernobyl. The mis-association between weapon’s fallout and Western nuclear reactor accidents makes even less sense than with Chernobyl.
If not fallout, what is radiation?
At this point we should address a few things concerning radiation itself. By far the worst form of radiation from bombs is neutron, which lasts only as long as the blast itself. High energy neutrons act like tiny bullets that literally rip through living tissue on the microscopic level, causing damage as it goes. Also, the neutrons make living tissue its own radioactive source for additional exposure. Fortunately, after the blast wave from the explosion passes and dissipates, almost no neutron radiation remains. In addition to the initial avalanche of neutrons, the resulting fallout contains significant concentrations of Gamma rays, Alpha and Beta radiation. Gamma radiation is similar to X-rays which can penetrate the body and cause negative ionization effects inside our bodies when in high concentration. Gammas are essentially tiny clumps of pure energy that have no electrical charge, which allows them to penetrate through our skin and into living tissue. In comparison, each Gamma is about 20 times less damaging than each neutron.
Alpha and Beta radiations, on the other hand, are actually tiny atomic particles with electrical charges, which makes their penetrating power very low. An Alpha particle is the nucleus of a Helium atom, minus the two electrons normally spinning about it. The Alpha’s adverse biological effect is the stripping of electrons from the first atoms it comes close to, ionizing the stripped atoms. Then, the Alpha becomes the inert gas Helium, which is biologically harmless. Alphas are very, very active, and because of this they cannot penetrate anything as sheer as a thin sheet of tissue paper. Our outer layer of dead skin is an impregnable shield against Alpha radiation.
The Beta particle is actually a free, highly energized electron. When Betas come in contact with anything, even as thin and flimsy as tissue, they are completely “attenuated” (de-energized) and immediately absorbed by the available electron shells of surrounding atoms. As with Alpha, our skin is an impregnable shield against Beta radiation. It should be noted that the inert gasses, Krypton and Xenon, only release Alpha and Beta radiations. Because they are chemically inert, these two elements cannot be absorbed into and retained by the body. They are essentially an innocuous and harmless "external" exposure source, but not a damaging "internal" exposure source.
However, if radioactive dust emitting Alphas and Betas is breathed into our lungs, or swallowed, it stays there. When and if this happens, the radioactive particles are released directly into living tissue and cellular damage can occur. A Beta is just as potentially damaging as Gamma radiation when absorbed by living tissue. What's more, Alpha ionization can be twenty times more damaging to living tissue than Gamma. In other words, it’s not only the choking, smothering dust in nuclear bomb fallout we should concern ourselves with, it’s the internally released Betas and Alphas from the ingested dust that can cause additional biological harm. With routine power plant radiation releases, however, the inert chemistry of the radioactive elements that are released makes exposure levels vanishingly small.
So, let’s turn to the radioactive material we can be exposed to from civilian reactors. First, only those people downwind of the reactor ever find themselves in the path of the reactor plant's atmospheric effluvia (plume). This point needs to be emphasized. Even in a worst case meltdown from a Western civilian reactor, only those people living downwind will be possibly subjected to an invisible plume. People living beyond the borders of the plume will not be exposed. The release of radioactive material will not spread out in all directions at the same time, as would be the case with a nuclear explosion. Reactor plant releases will be carried by the wind.
Next, nearly all the radioactive releases from a civilian reactor during routine operation, and the most probable radioactive elements from accidents, are Beta and Alpha emitters. There is no Neutron radiation at all. There are precious few Gamma sources to speak of, and only potentially released during a severe accident. Thus, the two most damaging forms of radiation from bombs and fallout, Neutron and Gamma, are not what we can realistically expect from power plant reactors. One point seems to beg re-emphasis. The two main elements emitting the Alphas and Betas from reactors are the inert gasses Krypton and Xenon. Because of their chemical inertness they cannot become lodged in the lungs. They are breathed in, and breathed right back out. Not like a choking cloud of dust at all. The vanishingly tiny fraction of these inert gasses that might hypothetically be retained in the lungs are attacked by the body and rapidly surrounded by callous-like barriers that totally attenuate the Alphas and Betas. Reactor radioactive atmospheric releases literally bear no resemblance to bomb fallout, whatsoever.
What about all the Iodine from an accident?
There has been considerable press about the possible release of radioactive Iodine from worst case power plant reactor accidents, which could concentrate in the thyroid gland. The catastrophe at Chernobyl exacerbated this notion, although such a high Iodine release seems unique to the Chernobyl-type reactor alone. Regardless, Thyroid-blocking medication is now routinely distributed to everyone living within 10 miles of an American civilian nuclear reactor…just in case a gargantuan burst of radioactive Iodine is somehow belched from the plant‘s ventilation system. This is a practice to prevent thyroid irradiation should there be a worst case accident, and a highly unlikely chain of associated safety air cleanup systems also fail, and the fuel cell is massively damaged in order to release the Iodine, and the ruptured fuel particles finds their way out of the many inches thick, solid steel vessel, and, the released Iodine makes it out of the massive steel and concrete barriers surrounding the reactor itself, and is carried by the wind to populated areas. Highly unlikely from a non-Chernobyl-type reactor? Yes. Absolutely impossible? No.
Unfortunately, there has been one reactor accident that released some 10% of the radioactive material found in the fission product matrix of its severely damaged reactor fuel; Chernobyl. While there was no Neutron-Gamma burst like we would have with a bomb, and the amount of subsequent radioactive material released was but a fraction of what would come from nuclear bomb fallout, the accident itself bears a bit more mention here. In addition to the Alpha and Beta-emitting inert gassses, considerable Iodine was released, along with dozens of other radioactive elements like Cesium, Barium, and Strontium. The Cesium is considered to be the most dangerous of the isotopes that escaped into the atmosphere, because of its lasting existence in the surrounding soil and water within 30 kilometers and downwind of the accident itself. Regardless, after more than 25 years following the accident at Chernobyl and initial spawn of some 2,000 thyroid cancers, more than 99% of those cancers have been cured. In addition, no long-term health effects have occurred. (see "Chernobyl Disaster" page)
By comparison with Chernobyl, the amount of radioactive debris emitting Alpha and Beta radiation potentially resulting from the worst-possible accident at a Western reactor is vanishingly microscopic. The entire radioactive release from Three Mile Island resulted in an exposure to the nearest members of the public living downwind which was less than 10% of what they received from natural background radiation that same year. People 50 miles away got much less than 1% of their annual natural radiation dose. Thirty years of subsequent detailed medical and health records reveal that the biological impact on the public has been zero. Further, Three Mile Island‘s accident may well have been the worst possible accident a Western civilian reactor could experience. (More on this in the TMI page) The bottom line is this; the public’s radiation exposure from Western reactors, and their worst-possible accidents, in no way corresponds to what the affected public would experience from fallout due to a nuclear explosion. It’s worse than comparing apples to oranges. It’s the equivalent of saying apples are oranges.
1. The radioactive relesases from nuclear power plants should not be called "fallout".
2. The most damaging types of radiation from bomb fallout are not the types released from power plant reactors.
3. Our skin is a perfect shield against nearly all radioactive releases from the operation of a power plant reactor.
- Rice, Kraig J.; Nuclear Attack Information;
- Nuclear Fallout Maps; 260 Press;
- Nuclear : Homeland Security News; National Terror Alert;
http://www.nationalterroralert.com/nuclear/; Feb. 17, 2010
- Talbot, Youk, McHugh-Pemu, and Zborowski; Long-Term Follow-Up of the Residents of the Three Mile Island Accident Area: 1979-1998; Environmental Health Perspectives;
- Chernobyl Accident; World Nuclear Association;
http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/chernobyl/inf07.html; November, 2009
- Chernobyl; Hyperphysics; Department of Physics and Astronomy, Georgia State University;