Understanding Nuclear Power and Propaganda: A Simple Guide

It seems to me that you’d have to go out of your way to figure out a more confusing explanation of the dangers of radioactive exposure (RE).  Were I a paranoid person, I’d think that was on purpose.

The first thing I needed to recognize for myself is that the dangers of RE is measured by what is practical not what is possible.  This begs the question:  “Practical to whom?

According to WiKi:

[In] “As Low As Reasonably Practicable“.[3] [t]he aim is to minimize the risk of radioactive exposure or other hazard while keeping in mind that some exposure may be acceptable in order to further the task at hand…This policy is based on the principle that any amount of radiation exposure, no matter how small, can increase the chance of negative biological effects such as cancer, though perhaps by a negligible amount. It is also based on the principle that the probability of the occurrence of negative effects of radiation exposure increases with cumulative lifetime dose.”

So here is one fact that I sort of missed when I tried to understand RE, and perhaps you did too:  Whenever you read a RE level, it is given to you by “hourly” dose, not in some abstract, one-time “hit.”  This means that when you are born, you begin with some nine months worth of radiation exposure, and continue to accumulate doses until you die or it kills you.

Unlike, say, a gunshot wound, the impact of RE is usually quite difficult to measure unless the hourly dose is extremely high.  When that happens at the top levels, radiation sickness occurs and death is fairly swift.

Explaining Contamination

In contrast, almost all of us are exposed to very low levels of radiation from the environment which adds to our tally so slowly that that, by itself, is unlikely to impact us unless we live hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, which we don’t.  Therefore, most of us are content with levels of RE that resemble what is found in the natural environment, and are upset when RE hourly levels far exceed that amount.

Half-Life of Radiation

Not all RE lasts in the environment for the same amount of time.  Some have longer “half lives” than others, meaning “how long it takes this radiation to be half as powerful as it is right now.”  Plutonium-244, found in plutonium, for example, has a half-life of about 80 million years, which means that it will emits half the amount of RE after 80 million years than it does today (radioactive potency.)  Lucky for us, Japan’s spent fuel rods in Reactor #3 are Plutonium-239 which has a half-life of only 24,100 years.  Nevertheless, that still makes it an undesirable lawn ornament.

Radiation as a Water Sprinkler Toy

I don’t know about you, but I like to think in terms of metaphor.  Think of RE like a water sprinkler play toy.  If you are right in the center of the spray, there is no doubt, you are going to get wet.  If you are farther away, you may or may not get wet, depending on how hard the wind is blowing in your direction.  The longer you stay in the vicinity of the spray, the wetter you get, (unless you are wearing water-proof clothing.) If this were RE instead of water, we’d tell the children not to drink the water if they had to play in it, because RE on the inside of your body does more damage than RE on the outside.  That’s why you shouldn’t eat salad greens grown in RE areas, or the animals that graze on that grass either.  That’s taking outside RE and putting it inside.

We are still dealing today with radioactive sheep across England, Scotland and Wales who remain under post-Chernobyl restrictions 19 years later.
The sheep may not be the same animals, but the grass they graze on is still radioactive.

Welsh Sheep Graze Radioactively

Let’s imagine that the kids in the picture are like the residents close to Fukushima.  The Japanese Gov’t has told them “That’s too close, move farther away to be safer (dryer).”  The Japanese and US gov’t disagree about how far away is dry enough to still be safe. When the RE is high enough, experts have said that even the airtight suits worn by nuclear power workers would do little to stop the contamination. For other isotopes, they are stopped pretty easily by a wall, or even something as thin as a piece of paper!

What’s Spraying Out?

What’s coming out of that hose?  What’s coming out is the radiation from both the reactors themselves and from the 3,400 tons of radiation in seven spent fuel pools.  Why they insist on putting them on the roof, I have no clue. That radiation is composed of more than one source.  At Fukushima we have: Iodine-131 (half-life: 8 days), Uranium-235 (half-life: 700 million years), Caesium-137, (half-life: 30 years), Strontium-90 (half life: 28 years), and Plutonium-239 (half-life: 24,100 years present in the MOX fuel.)

Some of these elements are lighter and therefore can be carried more easily by wind than others, like Caesium-137.  Some, like Plutonium-239, are heavy and will drop down right where it comes out of the spout of the sprayer.  Lighter RE will “wet” even the children outside the direct stream of water with a gentle breeze.

In contrast to immediate threats of death, radiation more slowly impacts the health of people both close to the site, and hundreds of miles away, and in unpredictable patterns, depending on wind and rain. It is a “Russian Roulette of Radiation” and you have to see where the contaminants land and who it rains down on.

Measuring RE:  Sieverts

Imagine that the water toy is spraying out “water,” in a variable flow of water pressure, where the higher the water pressure, the more water is projected. You now can imagine that RE is also being delivered at different radioactive intensities to the environment.  The “wetness” (or radioactivity) is being measure in “sievert” which is abbreviated by the symbol “Sv.”

The sievert is a large unit of radiation, like, say an Olympic size swimming pool is a large body of water. An Olympic size pool holds  2,500,000 liters or 550,000 gallons of water.  It would take either an intense water pressure (think: “nuclear bomb”) or someone staying under that sprinkler for months or years (think: “living there”) to be covered by the amount of water contained in an Olympic size pool.

Sieverts to Millisieverts

Most RE luckily isn’t that size, so scientists break it down by 1000’s and call the smaller amounts “millisievert,” symbol “mSv”.  If one SV is 2,500,000 liters of water (swimming pool), then a mSv is 2,500 liters.

Millisieverts to Microsieverts

A “microsievert,” symbol μSV, is 1,000,000 of a SV.  Time to remove more 0’s!    In our example, a “microsievert” is 2.5 liters of that original Olympic size swimming pool.

Here are the fractions of a sievert:

1 sievert = 1000 millisievert (mSv)
= 1,000,000 microsievert (μSv)
= 1,000,000,000 nanosievert (nSv)


Remember, even a teaspoon of RE is bad for you, according to anyone who isn’t full of “bullshit,” (see that post for the difference between “bullshit” and “lying”) and the more you are exposed, over a longer period of time, the worse it is.

RE and “Risk”

So when they say “1 mSv gives you a 1 in 20,000 lifetime risk of cancer” it means that “one hour of exposure at 1 mSv increases your risk of getting cancer by that much over your lifetime.”  That is an accumulative dose, including every exposure to RE you’ll ever have.

So, going back to our example, if that water toy sprayed out 1 mSv an hour of RE, and the kids play in it for one hour, they would increase their risk of getting cancer by 20,000 times.  And, in the same way, if the toy sprayed out .5 mSv an hour and they play in it for two hours, the risk would be the same.

A nuclear power plant worker can only play in that radioactive “sprinkler” for a total of 100 mSv’s over 5 years, in normal circumstances. So for example, they can stay 15 minutes at 20 mSv, one time,  1 hour at 1 mSv, the next, and so on, up to the maximum of 100 mSv’s over the 5 years. Plant owners are willing to increase their chance of death by cancer that much because, after all, that’s their job. Most plant owners will accept that risk because they consider it “reasonable” as long as they aren’t doing it. This is what is meant by “cumulative dose.”  When Japanese officialsincreased this amount by 250 mSv’s over 5 years, they basically said “We’ve come to the conclusion that we are putting your life at increased risk for a good reason.”

Now let’s look at how much RE was released per hour at Fukushima compared to other levels of radiation:

  • 0.365 mSv (365 μSv) (.000365 Sv) – hourly release West Gate Fukushima Plant 3/19
  • 1 mSv = (1000 μSv)= (.0010 Sv) – 1 in 20,000 lifetime risk of fatal cancer
  • 10 mSv= ( 10,000 μSv)= (.010 Sv) – 1 in 2,000 lifetime risk of fatal cancer
  • 11 mSv= (11,000 μSv)= (.010 Sv) – maximum hourly amount ever release at the Gate TEPCO
  • 100 mSv=(100,000 μSv) = (.10 Sv) – recommended limit for radiation workers every 5 years
  • 100 mSv=(100,000 μSv)= (.10 Sv) – 1 in 200 lifetime risk of fatal cancer
  • 350 mSv=(350,000 μSv)= (.35 Sv) – Exposure level of Chernobyl residents who were relocated
  • 400 mSv=(400,000 μSv) (.40 Sv) – Fukushima maximum radiation level per hour 3/14
  • 700 mSv=(700,000 μSv)=(.70 Sv) – Vomiting happens within hours of exposure
  • 750 mSv=(750,000 μSv )=(.75 Sv) – Hair loss two weeks after exposure
  • 1000 mSv=(1,000,000 μSv)= (1 Sv) – Onset of early radiation sickness
  • 1000 mSv=(1,000,000 μSv )= (1 Sv) – 1 in 20 lifetime risk of fatal cancer
  • 1000 mSv=(1,000,000 μSv )=(1 Sv) – Highest reported release near leaky reactor
  • 2000 mSv=(2,000,000 μSv)=(2 Sv) – Threshold for early death
  • 2000 mSv=(2,000,000 μSv )=(2 Sv) – 1 in 10 lifetime risk of fatal cancer
  • 4000 mSv=(4,000,000 μSv)=(4Sv) – 50/50 chance of continued survival
  • 4,000,000 μSv (4000 mSv)(4Sv) – 1 in 5 lifetime risk of fatal cancer
  • 6,000,000 μSv(6000 mSv) (6Sv) – Early death.

To determine cumulative dose, multiply the dose rate by the time exposed:

Cumulative Dose = Dose Rate x Time Exposed

Two Smile Island

So while we know that there is a direct relationship between the amount of RE exposure and health risk, (all the way down to a mythical “zero” exposure,) researchers can’t do a precise job estimating that risk, because it is going to depend on how much total RE has floated or rained down, at what intensity, and what amount of radiation this given population has ALREADY had.


“That means, at zero dose there is zero risk of harm, and at around 6,000,000 µSv (6 Sv) death is almost certain – a straight line between the two points gives the relationship between dose and risk.”

Babies and Radiation

According to some industry findings, nuclear disasters claim “mostly mental distress” upon their victims; however paradoxically a 1984 survey, by a local psychologist of 450 local residents near Three Mile Island documented acute health effects attributed to radiation.  While typically 2.6 people would normally be expected to be diagnosed with cancer between 1980-84, 19 cancers occurred amongst the residents [9].  This ultimately led the TMI Public Health Fund to review the data[13] and supporting a comprehensive epidemiological study by a team at Columbia University, according to Wiki.

Because RE literally is subject to wind patterns, it is difficult to conduct large-scale epidemiological studies, as few countries have an unlimited number of radiation monitors throughout the potential reach of a nuclear plant.  It is also handy to know how much a given population had previously been exposed to RE, in order to assess future health risks, as previously mentioned  (Mangano, 2004).

One population for which this isn’t true are infants and in-vitro fetuses, who are much more susceptible to radiation.  At Three Mile Island, in the US, (TMI), the following was reported:

Radioactive Hold-up

“In Dauphin County, where the Three Mile Island plant is located, the 1979 death rate among infants under one year represented a 28 percent increase over that of 1978, and among infants under one month, the death rate increased by 54 percent.”(Mangano, 2004, pp. 31 -35).

Despite this finding prompting further research, health effects of infants and pregnancy were not included in future studies, according to Mangano.

Impacts on the Environment

Radiation leaks contaminate ground soil and waterways, at high doses, immediately killing wildlife and humans close to the disaster site, while silently impacting life in ways that are hard to detect at lower levels or greater distances.   Unlike earthquakes and tsunamis, chemical and radiation disasters devastate the geographic area, and alter the ecological balance silently.

Impact on Marine Life Is Expected to Be Minimal” proclaims one headline, implying somehow that our oceans are a pretty safe place for radiation to rain down.  According to the Wall Street Journal:

[Radiation should blow off to sea] where it should rapidly dissolve in seawater and pose little risk to marine life or commercial seafood fisheries, scientists and federal officials said Friday.  Even if radiation levels in the immediate vicinity of the plant increase, there is likely to be no significant hazard off the coast of Japan or out to sea, according to researchers who studied the marine effects of fallout from nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific and the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which spewed a radioactive plume over the Black Sea.

Is that so? Oceans, like people, have previous RE exposure.  The Washington Post labeled the Black Sea as “the toilet bowl for half of Europe.

“Pollutants, including agrochemicals, toxic metals and radionuclides, made their way into the sea either through the atmosphere or river discharges. Increased “nutrients” caused an overproduction of phytoplankton, which block the light reaching the sea grasses and algae. Industrial activity, mining, shipping, and offshore oil and gas exploration further contributed to the sea’s destruction. Tanker accidents and operational discharges caused oil pollution, and coastal industries discharged wastes directly, with little or no treatment. Some countries dumped solid waste into the sea or onto wetlands. Urban areas flushed untreated sewage; and poor planning destroyed much of the aesthetics of the coastlines.”

By the time the Chernobyl accident happened, human-caused radionuclides bioaccumulation had been building up for decades, as a result of large-scale atmospheric nuclear weapons tests carried out before 1963 (Buesseler and Livingston, 1996).  Anything that couldn’t adjust to radiation would have already gone extinct.  The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident in April 1986 was just one more nail in the oceanic coffin.

From the early 1960 until shortly after Chernobyl, the Black Sea had deteriorated in terms of its biodiversity, and habitats.  Once supporting a rich and diverse marine life, and abundant fisheries, by 1990, this “resource” was on the brink of extinction. Over those years not only had the fish supply been plundered, it had become the premier dumping ground for solid and liquid waste.

“[T]he dolphin population has declined to just one percent of the number recorded 46 years ago. In 1950, [the researcher] said, one million dolphins belonging to these species lived in the Black Sea. However, their numbers started decreasing soon after. By 1970 there was a population of 70,000 dolphins, by 1995 the school had reduced to 10,000.” Bologa

From this same Wall Street Journal article:

“We released significantly more of these elements when we tested nuclear weapons on a global scale and they haven’t caused much of a problem,” said marine geochemist Timothy Kenna who studies radiation and the ocean at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York.

“We can see them in ocean water 50 or 60 years after they were released,” he said. “And they have not been that detrimental to food supplies and other things.”

So you say.  And if you are the guy who did it (“we”) I’d like you to leave your name and address.

The extent of the cognitive distortion in nuclear research and the industry as a whole, is nothing less than startling.  While it certainly is a challenge to determine  which of the multiple pollutants are killing our oceans, it is completely irresponsible to claim that radiation has definitively and without a shadow of a doubt has not been a contributing factor.

“Radiation is Good for You”:  The Spindoctors

…[T]he memories of the disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are now distant and the perspective of nuclear energy is changing in positive fashion.  The growing worries created by the ballooning demands on the world’s energy sources, an increase in the competition for energy supplies, rising concerns regarding global warming, and the volatility of the gas and oil prices are reasons that many countries are now re-thinking the nuclear energy proposition.

Politicians and scientists around the world are now viewing nuclear energy as being eco-friendly…  Investing in nuclear stocks is now an option that is back on the table and is being viewed as an ecologically positive investment.  [It] does not leave a carbon footprint on the environment…  From the standpoint of being morally beneficial, that may still be up for speculation as nuclear energy is still not the preferred energy source that many environmentalists feel will solve the problems we are currently encountering in the global environment.  However, based on the above, we may not have any other viable alternative energy options to choose from other than the current ones – hydro, solar, and wind.  In so many words, nuclear energy and re-investing in it may benefit the Earth’s chances at survival.   [source]

All over the world nuclear is being recognized as an integral part [emphasis added] of clean energy generation in a developing and expanding world. President Barack Obama has announced more than $8 billion in federal loan guarantees for the first nuclear power plant in the United States in close to 30 years. Obama says investing in nuclear is critical for the United States as it will reduce US dependence on foreign oil, and help the US economy by creating high-wage jobs. [source]

It was all going so well for the nuclear industry, and then this had to happen.

We should expect to see an entirely new slant on the health effects of Chernobyl. Current articles suggest that Chernobyl is beginning to resemble a pre-historic animal theme park, with live prehistoric animals, like 10 foot long catfish, and killer wolves. It’s a Disaster Nature Park, as this article talks about, where tours and tourism are really picking up.

The financial vs. health push-pull will continue to be seen, as it was during the Chernobyl disaster. This news report from 1986 provides an interesting insight into this issue. april-30-1986-chernobyl-nuclear-disaster-24502473 You’ll recognize some of the arguments.


Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano confirmed the radioactive contamination of food products in areas around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant but assured that “these detected levels of radiation would not affect the health of consumers.”

Of course not.

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was not so sure. While it “confirmed the presence of radioactive iodine in food products” it was “less reassuring about its harmlessness“: “Though radioactive iodine has a short half-life of about eight days and decays naturally within a matter of weeks, there is a short-term risk to human health if radioactive iodine in food is absorbed into the human body.” That “don’t drink the water, kids” thing again.

Japan had now ordered a stoppage of the sale of all food products from the Fukushima Prefecture, the IAEA noted.


The nuclear industry has suffered major setbacks over the years, and, prior to this accident, was experiencing a “green renaissance.”  For the first time since Three Mile Island, a “progressive” US President has approved new nuclear plants with a promise of government-funded guarantees insuring them. (Who else would be foolish enough?)  While many will argue that nuclear power is “clean,” emitting no green-house gases, much rides on corporate spinsters convincing us that little-to-no long-term damage will result from this current catastrophe in Japan and that all currently functioning nuclear plants will keep functioning correctly.

I’m not naive. I’m fully aware that solar and wind aren’t going to help us sail into a bright green future. However we all should have a say in ‘picking our poison,’ once we know and accept its fatal effects. That’s not what’s happening.  And if the reaction in Japan is any measure, they say “get me out of here.”  Call it “radiophobia” if you will, but fear is what seems rampant right now.

The impacts of nuclear radiation contamination is being compared to arguably extremely infrequent and low-level, familiar sources, as air travel and X-rays. Don’t be confused. In order for such comparisons to be legitimate, we must compare hour-by-hour contamination.

While a one-way trip from New York to Tokyo might provide a RE dose of .2 mSv, you’d have to spend more than 500 trips to equal the radiation of one hour at the Fukushimo nuclear power plant at the height of the emissions release this past week. That’s a round-trip each and every month from NYC to Tokyo, for almost 21 years.

You’d need to have 312 chest X-rays to have the equivalent dose of RE that you’d get after spending a single day in the town of Ōkuma yesterday, the town that hosts the nuclear power plant.

It’s not benign and no, Ann*, it’s not good for you…

* Harry Frankfurt makes a distinction between “bullshit” as opposed to “lying.” Bullshit completely disregards the truth in favor of media spin, impression management, and the like. For the bullshitter, … all bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may pertain to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose. (pp. 55-56)

About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.

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