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The Dead Hand Journal

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This article is an excerpt from Chapter three in my new book The Chicken Little Agenda – Debunking Experts' Lies. This is the seventh of seven parts for Chapter three that will be presented here sequentially. Read part six here.

Chapter 3

The Sun and the Atom: The Only Sources of Electricity

All Things Radioactive

The Chicken Littles have so dominated today's media that the very word "radiation" strikes fear into the heart of the ordinary person. Yet, as related earlier, we are inundated by radiation every moment of our existence. Have you ever heard that you can get cancer from using a cell phone? Have you heard that living near power transmission lines will make you sick?

Relax on both counts. Cell phone radiation is in the 100-micron region, which is too long to affect your brain, and it has such a low energy level that, even if it could affect your brain cells, there isn't sufficient power to damage them. High-power transmission lines produce much larger energy levels, but their wavelength is about 2,500 miles in air, so you and your house are entirely invisible to the resulting radiation. Consequently, there is no possible danger from either source.

We have already examined the nature of radiation – what it is and what it isn't. By now, we have an understanding of the different kinds of radiation, and even a sense of what radioactivity is. Very few people understand, however, that not only are we inundated by radiation, we are virtually surrounded by radioactivity as well.

Radioactivity is expressed in Becquerels (Bq). One Becquerel is equivalent to one atomic disintegration per second – the release of one alpha or beta particle, or one neutron, or one gamma-ray every second.
Here are examples of the radioactivity level of some common items.

  • 1 kg coffee 1,000 Bq
  • 1 kg granite 1,000 Bq
  • 1 kg coal ash 2,000 Bq
  • 1 kg superphosphate fertilizer 5,000 Bq
  • 1 adult human 7,000 Bq
  • Air in a typical newer American home (radon) 30,000 Bq
  • 1 household smoke detector 30,000 Bq
  • 1 luminous Exit sign 1 trillion Bq

This means, for example, that the person standing next to you in the grocery checkout line is experiencing 7,000 atomic disintegrations every second. When you walk into any newer home, you immediately begin to experience 30,000 atomic disintegrations every second due to the radon content of the air. When you walk under the luminous Exit sign at your office, you get hit with the effects of a trillion atomic disintegrations per second.

We continuously experience a relatively constant level of background radiation. In the United States, radiation dosage is measured in rems, or more typically in millirems (one thousandth of a rem). A rem is a unit of ionizing radiation that produces the same damage to humans as one roentgen of high-voltage X-rays – the amount of X-rays that will produce one electrostatic charge of ionization. The typical annual background radiation dose for a human is 360 millirems, or about a third of a rem.

Small amounts of radiation damage are easily repaired by the body. Even small dosages over an extended period have no long-term effect. Similarly, a larger dose taken all at once may cause temporary sickness, although its long-term effect is negligible. Taking a larger dose repeatedly over a short period can, of course, have serious consequences. Taking a really large dose can be deadly, since so much tissue is damaged that the body cannot repair it.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has published guidelines for acceptable radiation dosages. NIH sets the annual dosage for the general population at 100 millirems above the naturally occurring background radiation, or just under 500 millirems. On the other hand, for occupational workers, the limit is 5,000 millirems. This is a huge difference, and a case can be made that if it is okay for an occupational worker to experience 5,000 millirems in a year, there is no real reason the general population could not be perfectly healthy with the same annual dosage. In the real world, however, even occupational workers in the nuclear industry never experience such high dosages.

During my twenty-two submerged months aboard nuclear submarines, I wore a radiation badge to measure the total amount of radiation I received. I was within 200 feet of a nuclear reactor the entire time, and as a kicker, because I was the missile officer, I spent a significant part of my time very close to 160 thermonuclear warheads. My total radiation count was actually lower than yours for the same time, no matter where you were. I received essentially no radiation from the reactor and the warheads. The ocean and the submarine hull shielded me from the sun and from cosmic radiation, which pose a millionfold greater risk to humans than do nuclear reactors. The possibility of anybody anywhere receiving a harmful radiation dosage from a nuclear reactor is negligible. We have more important things to worry about, like crossing a busy street.

The Chicken Littles who promulgate their entirely unreasonable and completely incorrect view of radiation and radioactivity, who run about waving their fearful hands in the air, protesting nuclear power plants because they are "dangerous," are – in a word – wrong.

The bottom line is that "radiation" is not a bad word, and it certainly is not something we should fear. Gasoline is very "dangerous" when improperly used. It can explode; it can burn rapidly; it can cause horrific damage under certain conditions. Despite these negative potential problems, we use gasoline every day. All of us, including the Chicken Littles, ride around on a tank of this explosive substance and think nothing of it. We routinely refill our rolling containers without serious thought to the potential danger. We pipe natural gas to millions of homes across the country without serious thought to the fires and explosions that could result from improper usage of this substance. We routinely handle propane and butane, which have similar potential hazards. We store strong acids and alkalis in our homes without a second thought.

We are willing to accept slight risk in exchange for great benefit. This should also be true for radiation. Most radiation is benign as we normally experience it. Of the radiation that is potentially dangerous, only a small fraction is associated with the generation of atomic power. The risk from this radiation is negligibly small.

This remains true whether or not Greenpeace or Chicken Little agree, or even understand the problem.

Click here to read more book excerpts and hear radio interviews with the author.

© 2006 – Robert G. Williscroft

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The Chicken Little Agenda: Debunking "Experts’" Lies

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