Monday, March 21, 2011

Your Spouse is Radioactive: Radiation Risk in Perspective

Randall Munroe of XKCD has published an awesome visualization of radiation levels from various sources - view it here. Some points of interest:
  • People are radioactive: sleeping next to someone exposes you to 0.05 microsieverts, or 1/20th the dose you'd receive from an arm x-ray, thanks to trace amounts of radioactive isotopes we have in our bones and bodies - things like potassium-40 and carbon-14.

  • Bananas are surprisingly radioactive (thanks to all their potassium, a vital nutrient that also contains radioactive isotopes). Eating one single banana exposes you to a higher dose than living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant for a year.

  • Coal power plants hit us with more radiation than nuclear plants do. This is because coal contains uranium and thorium, elements which are condensed and concentrated during the coal-burning process. And while nuclear waste is carefully confined, radioactive coal emissions go up the smokestacks and into our lungs, our cropland, and our fisheries. Living 50 miles from a coal plant will dose you with 0.3 microsieverts every year - that's like eating three bananas, for Christ's sake!

  • The Three Mile Island meltdown produced doses of up to 1 millisievert - about 1/6th the dose you'd receive from a chest CT scan. The Fukashima meltdown in Japan is producing doses of roughly 3.6 millisieverts per day at some sites within 50 km of the plant.

  • The lowest one-year dose clearly linked to increased cancer risk is 100 millisieverts. That would be equivalent to eating 2 million bananas, or spending a month in the neighborhood of the damaged Fukashima reactors. So avoid doing those things, and you should be fine.
I was also tickled to note that Munroe's chart was produced in association with "Ellen," the senior reactor operator at the Reed College Research Reactor. I spent a few months of my freshman year training (unsuccessfully) to become an NRC-licensed reactor operator, and even though I didn't follow through with it, I did learn a lot of excellent trivia about subatomic particles, nuclear history, and chemistry, which has been good material for party conversations these last few days.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Glaciers at risk!

It's that time of year again when hundreds of truck-loads of snow get dumped near the bottom of Chestnut Street to form the Bayside Glacier (documented previously here, here, and here).

In last week's Portland Phoenix, I wrote a short follow-up piece about recent legislation that proposes to dump these icebergs of sewage directly into rivers and harbors.

PS - It's bullshit like this that has kept me from blogging much lately. Elections have consequences.