risks of nuclear power
May 27, 2007 3:51 AM   Subscribe

what is the difference between radiation poisoning, burn due to radiation, contaminated/heavy water, etc. what are the differences between nuclear power plant accidents and atomic bombs.

i have studied this stuff ages ago, and will do more research, but would be interested to see the usu range of inputs from meta. i want to know primarily about the differences between the risks of bombs and the risks of nuclear power plants. but any detail on isotopes used, half life and long term risks, damage done, types of contamination, safety for both modes, transport risks, waste storage, and any related topics. thanks
posted by edtut to Science & Nature (9 answers total)
"Radiation" means that the substance is emmiting Alpha particles, Beta particles, or Gamma rays.

Alpha particles, being big and heavy, can be stopped by paper or skin. In order to do you damage, they have to be ingested - for example, by swallowing something containing radium. But if you do swallow something that emits alpha particles, it will result in radiation poisoning, which can result on severe chromosome damage in the long term.

Beta particles are high energy electrons, and can penetrate your body more easily than alpha particles.

Gamma rays are electromagnetic radiation that can penetrate you very easily - you need a nice thick layer of lead to stop them. Nuclear explosions emit these in copious amounts and that's a major danger of nuclear detonations. Of course, nuclear explosions are also physically destructive as well. They can cause cancers such as lung cancer and leukemia, and cause severe damage to your chromosomes.
posted by Jimbob at 4:24 AM on May 27, 2007

i want to know primarily about the differences between the risks of bombs and the risks of nuclear power plants.

Nuclear Bombs: dangerous
Nuclear Power: not dangerous

Most of the opposition to nuclear power from environmental groups nowadays is ideological in nature and not based on any real understanding of science.

For a really good look at nuclear power check out the amazing Google Talk Fission is the New Fire by Rod Adams. I thought the nuclear power segment of Penn & Teller's Bullshit! was pretty good too.
posted by alby at 4:47 AM on May 27, 2007

Radiation sickness is when you feel nauseated due to exposure to gamma radiation. The cells in your stomach lining are more susceptible to radiation damage than other cells in your body, which is why this is one of the first symptoms of exposure. People who spend too much time at the beach can even experience this. Other cells that are more susceptible to radiation damage include your bone marrow and those in your gonads. I think it has to do with the fact that the cells are dividing at a higher rate, and that cells undergoing mitosis have thinner outer membranes.

The long term effect of radiation exposure (both low-level and acute) is increased risk of cancer in whatever cells have been exposed. Lung cancer risk due to smoking is an example of this, as there are alphas emitted by some of the smoke particles.

Radiation burns are caused by a much higher dosage at a much higher rate, and can be compared to burns due to fire.

This is just what I remember from the navy over ten years ago, so take it with a grain of salt. Also, I only worked in nuclear power, not nuclear weapons, so I can't say much about those. There is practically no relationship between the damage caused by a nuclear detonation and exposure the public might get due to some kind of accident at a nuclear power plant. I'd hesitate to categorize the difference as simply nuclear power good/nuclear weapons bad like alby does, but I agree that the public perception of nuclear power generation is really misguided, and in my opinion it's a much smaller risk than, say, coal-fired power plants.
posted by greasepig at 5:21 AM on May 27, 2007

Will only comment on the damage done part, since I use irradiation for experimental research.

A good dose of gamma irradiation will destroy the rapidly dividing cells in the body (namely bone marrow cells, T cell, B cells, and other cells of the hematopoeitic system), but leave other tissues relatively spared (except, as mentioned, the cells lining the GI tract). These cells die because the damage induced to their DNA during replication usually triggers apoptosis (programmed cell death). However, damage induced to DNA is also what can cause cancer (note that irradiation is also used to kill cancers), so the risks of cancer after exposure to irradiation are therefore increased. The destruction of the immune cells (also a constantly dividing/renewing population) thereby increases the susceptibility to infections (and cancers, for that matter).

Damage caused to the cells lining the stomach reduce the absorption of water and nutrients from ingested food. This leads to weight loss, and can lead to a flushing of a lot of bacteria, which are a vital supplier of Vitamin K. Vitamin K is essential for blood coagulation, and the lack of it increases the chance of internal haemorrhages.

Of course, dosage is important, and wikipedia has a good list of the symptoms.
posted by kisch mokusch at 6:17 AM on May 27, 2007

I can't directly answer your question, but I can point to a (useful?) tangent.

Coal is laced with all kinds of radioactive substances: each year, the world's coal plants release more radiation into the environment than the entire nuclear industry has since the dawn of the Atomic Age. That's including the Chernobyl accident.

If you exclude that as a case of crappy Soviet-era engineering, then a single coal plant releases more radiation than the entire nuclear industry ever has.

Net total deaths, ever, from the entire civilian nuclear industry, including radiation treatments, not just power? About 200. At the 2004 rate, that's about 5.5 days of traffic fatalities... again, over the entire history of the Atomic Age.

In essence, there has been only one serious nuclear accident. Three Mile Island, by our standards, is considered 'serious', and just a puff of radiation got out. I don't remember the exact total, but it was very small.

We do have a problem with the waste, though. We are not dealing with it correctly. Yucca Mountain is a start, but we need to put a lot of energy and focus on that. Deep earth sequestration would seem ideal. But note: from an environmental perspective, it's not that big a deal. Humans are uniquely susceptible to radiation; it appears that one of the speciation events that gave rise to humanity also made us very rad-vulnerable. The wildlife around Chernobyl is just fine.... in fact, better than it would be if people could still live there. It's a very green technology, especially when we screw up with it.
posted by Malor at 8:24 AM on May 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

The key thing to keep in mind is that there is a fundamental difference between "radiation" and "radioactivity." A lot of people use these two terms interchangably where they are different animals to discuss. Mainly, radioactivity is an atomic activity that emits levels of electromagnetic radiation. As mentioned above only certain types of radiation are considered harmful....many types are fairly benign that we experience daily such as exposure to radio or microwave wireless broadcasts, and then radiation in the form of light or heat. It's usually when you get into the higher frequencies like UV, gamma, xray, etc. and up that serious cell damage is likely (or when DNA damage occurs to the point where the P53 gene is unable to send a kill signal to the cell before it reproduces..thus causing cancer).
posted by samsara at 9:24 AM on May 27, 2007

[i]the differences between the risks of bombs and the risks of nuclear power plants.[/i]

One thing to consider is that the reaction that produces power in a nuclear plant is far less powerful than the reaction that occurs in a nuclear bomb. The fission reaction in a plant is regulated with control rods in the reactor that are able to accept neutrons, slowing the chain reaction. The uranium used in power plants is not capable of causing a nuclear explosion because it is not enriched enough (weapons grade) to do so.
posted by rancidchickn at 10:25 AM on May 27, 2007

Radiation poisoning hasn't been covered yet, so I'll take that one:
Radiation poisoning (symptoms include the purple blotches that people get in the days/weeks after high/lethal exposure) is when the number of cells killed by radiation burn exceeds the body's ability to get rid of the dead cells before things start going septic. Since radiation burns from gamma are not surface burns like normal burns, but all the way through the body, so you can end up with what I guess is necrotic flesh, all through your body. Ouch :(
posted by -harlequin- at 2:58 PM on May 27, 2007

Some very powerful resources can be downloaded here.

For example:
"Hotspot" is software designed to aid emergency planning in the event of a nuclear disaster. In addition to fallout dispersion simulation and calculation of the various radiation levels over time and distance as the decay chain does its thing, it also covers which isotopes get absorbed by the body how, how long they stay in the body, which parts of the body they end up in, and what kind of radiation dose they deliver while there.

"Radiation Decay" is a program that lists all radioactive isotopes, all of their emissions, the energy signature of each emission, their daughter products, and so on. You can use this to chart what is happening in a nuclear reactor or a bomb, and what isotopes will result, etc.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:07 PM on May 27, 2007

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