Category Archives: Radiation

Implications of improved radiation protection standards for Fukushima evacuees

By Rod Adams

The American Nuclear Society’s annual meeting for 2012 included a President’s Special Session titled Low-Level Radiation & Its Implications for Fukushima Recovery (Warning—the link leads to a 54 MB, 208 page PDF full of disruptive information that might change your opinion on the benefits of spending billions of dollars every year to keep radiation doses as low as unreasonably achievable).

The session was well attended and 200 printed copies of the 208-page compilation of presentations and papers were snapped up quickly. Unfortunately, I am not yet able to judge if the situation today is any more favorable to a rational reconsideration of current regulations than it was during the period between 1994–1999 when Jim Muckerheide, Ted Rockwell, Ted Quinn, Andy Kadak, and others arranged a sustained series of special sessions on the health effects of low level radiation at ANS annual meetings.

That series culminated in technical briefing papers that supported revised ANS and Health Physics Society (HPS) position statements in favor of taking new approaches to radiation protection and some acknowledgment by Nuclear Regulatory Commission commissioners such as Greta Dicus that the science being gathered supported the need for a reevaluation of the linear no-threshold model (LNT) model and the regulations that use it as their basis.

Unfortunately, that effort came to naught after the officially selected Committee to Assess Health Risks From Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation from the National Academy of Sciences decided that the evidence of no or positive effects from very low levels of radiation was not convincing enough. They refused to overturn their long-held assumption that the linear relationship between dose and damage was valid enough for government regulations all the way down to a zero dose.

Little changed in the radiation protection field as a result of the multi-year effort and more billions of dollars were spent—and collected by the recipients of the spending—each year for more than another decade to protect people from doses that have never been shown to cause harm to people. The LNT is used to justify such absurd regulations as requiring that the high level waste repository in the United States must designed to ensure that annual doses to the most exposed person will be less than 15 mrem per year. That is 1/20th of the average background radiation in the United States.

My curiosity about the conclusion reached by the BEIR VII committee was strong enough when I first read the report. I had attended a number of the special sessions at ANS meetings, become a member of Radiation, Science and Health and developed a high level of respect for Jim Muckerheide, Myron Pollycove, Jerry Cuttler, Sohei Kondo, and John Cameron, among others. I could not understand why the information those highly qualified and courageous scientists and engineers were developing and presenting was being ignored.

However, while working in Washington and living in Annapolis, Md., I developed a friendship with a member of the Uniformed Public Health Service. He served a tour of duty in the office of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that controls the expenditure of the funds that the U.S. government appropriates each year to support the Life Span Study (LSS) of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki conducted by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation. He told me that the senior government service (GS) employees that controlled that funding had established a small fiefdom. They had decided that they would do everything in their power to make sure that the money kept flowing to people that supported the status quo assumption. They made no secret of the fact that the LSS was their career ticket during conversations in the office.

After hearing that story, I more fully understood why the BEIR VII committee was so sure that the Life Span Study of atomic bomb victims—whose doses were given in a very short period—was considered to be a gold standard. It can be difficult to argue with funding sources that have a preconceived notion about the answers they expect to receive as deliverables. The thing that still bothers me, however, is realizing that a tiny group of functionaries can selfishly hold so much power over so many for such a small thing as a government job.

During the intervening years since the last sustained effort to bring sense and science to regulations and emergency response criteria associated with low level radiation doses, I have engaged in numerous conversations with nuclear energy professionals who have resisted—sometimes quite strongly—the idea that there is such a thing as a safe dose of radiation. Some were shocked to hear me suggesting that science showed that it was possible that radiation might even be beneficial at certain doses. Those concepts go against so much of their training and indoctrination.

The report produced for the 2012 special session should help reach these skeptical professionals, especially the ones who have nurtured the important nuclear philosophy that they are learning professionals who must always maintain a questioning attitude that is open to change if given new, reliable information.

Even though it is a big file at 54 MB, the President’s Special Session: Low-Level Radiation & Its Implications for Fukushima Recovery should be spread widely and reprinted often. Far more nuclear professionals have unfettered access to high speed data networks now than they did in 1999. Though the Internet was available and papers from the ANS sessions were posted on web sites, the network was not very fast or very ubiquitous in the small towns that host the workers at most nuclear power plants and national labs.

I hope that the plight of the evacuated residents of the Fukushima prefecture will encourage interested observers to recognize the deleterious effects of maintaining regulations based on an inaccurate model in the name of “conservatism” or “precautionary protection”.  If sensible rules prevailed, nearly all of the Fukushima evacuees would be able to return home and rebuild their homes, villages, and lives.

So far, I am more hopeful than optimistic. Perhaps some of you can convince me that this time is going to be different, and we really will see a gradual shift toward more rational radiation regulations.

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Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

ANS Nuclear Matinee: Fukushima and Chernobyl: Myth versus Reality

Facts vs. myths about the health effects of Fukushima and Chernobyl.  The conclusions of scientists studying health consequences may be startling to those exposed only to commonly held beliefs and traditional media (and Chernobyl Diaries!)

Also see the excellent article and discussion about the video at the Atomic Insights website.

 

Spent fuel at Fukushima Daiichi safer than asserted

By Will Davis

In recent days, a number of articles have been printed that assert that a grave danger exists at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear generating station. These articles claim that this danger exists due to the condition of the spent nuclear fuel at the site and the supposedly shaky condition of its storage and care. Two examples:

The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Is Far From Over” by Robert Alvarez

Fukushima Daiichi Site: Cesium-137 is 85 times greater than at Chernobyl Accident” by Akio Matsumura

These articles are highly deceptive. The occurrence of a cataclysmic release of radioactive material as surmised is hinged upon the occurrence of so many statistically impossible events that it is certain to be a practical impossibility. Since the assertions continue to gain a wider audience, however, it is necessary to examine them and make a realistic assessment of their likelihood.

Assertion 1: The spent fuel pools, particularly at Fukushima Daiichi No. 4 plant (1F-4), are liable to collapse

Since shortly after the Tohoku quake and tsunami, TEPCO has continually inspected the buildings at the site for physical integrity. More importantly, TEPCO has conducted seismic safety studies of all the reactor buildings; the results of these studies are linked below, which show that the reactor buildings are safe in the event of further (even severe) earthquakes.

Submission of Reports about the study regarding current seismic safety and reinforcement of reactor buildings at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station

Important Report from TEPCO” (particularly items dated April 5)

“At 11:04 pm on April 1, a 5.9-magnitude earthquake centered in the coast of Fukushima Prefecture occurred. Hama-dori of Fukusihma Prefecture registered intensity 5 lower on the Japanese seismic (intensity) scale of 7. No abnormalities were detected at facilities for water injection into the reactors, nitrogen gas injection, cooling of spent fuel pool, and the treatment of highly contaminated water at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. They all operate normally after the quake. As for the degree of the shake of the reactor buildings, Unit 6′s reactor building’s foundation registered 40.7 gal in horizontal direction and 19.4 gal in vertical direction.

We, TEPCO, evaluate earthquake-proof safety by developing Design Basis Earthquake Ground Motion Ss as large-scale quake which would possibly occur in future. For example, the degree of shake of Unit 6′s reactor building’s foundation against the Design Basis Earthquake Ground Motion is 448 gal in horizontal direction and 415 gal in vertical direction (which is around 10 times large in horizontal way and around 20 times large in vertical way compared with the quake occurred on April 1, 2012). We assess that the level of this Design Basis Earthquake Ground Motion is almost same as the one recorded for the Tohoku–Pacific Ocean Earthquake. Based on the Motion, we simulated the damaged situation of the current reactor buildings of Unit 1 to 4, having implemented quake response analysis for the reactor buildings as well as equipments and pipes which are important in terms of safety. As a result, we confirmed that there are no negative signal, such as shear/twist of quake-proof walls of buildings, the fact that the stress of facilities/piping lowers the standard value, and the fact that buildings collapse and facilities/ piping lose their functions.”

NUREG /CR-4982, “Severe Accidents in Spent Fuel Pools in support of Generic Safety Issue 82,” Brookhaven National Laboratory, indicates that the likelihood of seismically induced spent fuel pool failure may be as low as 1 X 10-10 occurrences per reactor year, which is a statistically insignificant rate of occurrence.

From the above, it can easily be ascertained that further seismic damage to the buildings is not likely. It should be added that TEPCO is continuing to remove material (both debris and structural material) from the upper levels of the damaged reactor buildings—further reducing their mass, and the amount of mass at higher levels that could induce larger swaying moment. Thus, seismically induced collapse of the reactor buildings (as asserted in various articles penned by activists) is very unlikely. Assertion 1: False

Assertion 2: The spent fuel pool at 1F-4 is in particularly dire structural condition

TEPCO has continuously monitored the 1F-4 building for damage (having no damaged reactor in the building, it is the most widely accessible among 1F-1 through 1F-4, and thus most easily examined). TEPCO has also constructed, as a result of structural studies performed on the building, a steel-reinforced concrete support beneath the spent fuel pool at this plant. Photos are available at TEPCO “Completion of Installation of Supporting Structure…

TEPCO estimates, in fact, that the seismic safety margin of the 1F-4 building’s spent fuel pool is now improved 20 percent over the original condition. Thus, there is no basis to assertions that 1F-4′s spent fuel pool is in a dire condition. Assertion 2: False

 

 

 

 

Assertion 3: The spent fuel in these plants’ spent fuel pools could ignite, leading to a massive radiological release

This assertion is patently false. First, it is important to understand that in order for the fuel to ignite, it has to get hot—and in its present condition, submerged in spent fuel pools with redundant cooling systems and filtration systems, constant remote temperature monitoring, backup generating and pumping systems in mobile units in place (on standby), and high reach concrete pump trucks on site (if necessary), there is no chance of the fuel heating up in any significant way while it is in the pools in the buildings.

We’ve seen already that it’s unlikely that the buildings would be damaged in a quake—and we can surmise, given the manpower and equipment on site, that even if any sort of equipment leak or malfunction temporarily suspended cooling for the spent fuel, that malfunction would be quickly detected and fixed. So, it’s just not likely at all that the fuel would even begin to get noticeably hot in the spent fuel pools as-is now. Temperatures of the water in the spent fuel pools is currently in the ~30 °C and under range.

In order for apocalyptic assertions of a “fuel clad ignition and fire” to occur, moreover, the clad itself would need to be heated to incredible temperatures, which just isn’t possible. Ignition of the cladding (Zircalloy-2) on those fuel elements can occur roughly at 900 ºC in the proper conditions, but it’s important to note that, depending on the surrounding conditions (presence or absence of water vapor and oxygen content of the surroundings), the material may not ignite at that temperature anyway. From NUREG /CR-4982:

“The cladding on such fuel will not ignite until 900 ºC (1652 ºF), while the fuel melting point for UO2 fuel is 2880 ºC (5216 ºF).”

An online video shows Zirc-2 tube being heated with a blow torch (probably over 2000 ºC) and not catching fire. In point of fact, while the chemistry of rapid oxidation /combustion of Zirc cladding is complex, it just would not be possible under the conditions at the site. Further, even under the wild assumption that the buildings somehow collapsed, all of the other resources on site, and remotely off site, are still available to move in and provide cooling for the fuel.

In addition, the rate of heatup of the fuel depends on how long it’s been out of a reactor. According to NUREG /CR-4982, unless the spent fuel is recently discharged from an operating reactor (within 180 days), ignition of the clad is completely impossible in any situation, regardless. Experts have calculated that the heat output presently from the hottest of the spent fuel is only on the order of several hundred watts per element—a very insignificant amount in comparison to heating the material to between 900 ºC–2000 ºC in order to ignite it.

In addition, in order for a “cataclysmic” spread of the radionuclides contained in this spent fuel to occur, we can see that a massive fire is needed to both release the material and provide a driving head (or “loft”) to spread it to the winds. It’s clear that no such fire is possible, given the above information. The assertions simply fall apart.  Assertion 3: False  

Conclusion

In fact, all three assertions, as we’ve seen, fall apart at every turn—there’s no basis to assertions of shaky buildings, or a structurally failed 1F-4 plant, or the chance of zircalloy cladding fire, or billowing of the released material to the entire earth. Realistic, practical analysis, performed by personnel on site (TEPCO/NISA), nuclear professionals here in the United States with decades of experience in both theory and practice, and official peer-reviewed studies and documents (e.g., NUREG /CR-4982) show that the predictions of apocalypse being spread now are just as unlikely to occur as those predictions of apocalypse that were made then at the time of the accident.

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The author expresses his gratitude for assistance in this analysis provided by John H. Bickel, Meredith Angwin, Margaret Harding, Leslie Corrice, Rod Adams, Cheryl Rofer, Bill Rodgers, Paul Bowersox, Rick Michal, Steve Skutnik, and Dan Yurman.

Will Davis is the author of the nuclear energy blog “Atomic Power Review,” and is a member of the American Nuclear Society.  A former US Navy reactor operator, Davis finds his calling to be presenting the public with information about nuclear energy technology and its history.

The Vermont Yankee Follies Continue

By Howard Shaffer

Since March 22 of this year, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant has been operating via a 20-year license extension granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The State of Vermont has been barred from attempting to shut down the plant by federal court injunctions. Nonetheless, the follies surrounding the plant continue, with all stakeholders participating: the legal system, the legislature, plant supporters, and plant opponents.

The legal system

Entergy Vermont Yankee’s suit against the State of Vermont, which was found in Entergy’s favor, has been appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. Briefs are due next month. This suit involves federal authority versus “States Rights.” It is generally expected that it will be appealed to the Supreme Court. That might mean a decision at the end of the court’s 2013–2014 term, in the spring of 2014.

The NRC has been sued for improperly issuing a license renewal to the Vermont Yankee plant, on the grounds that the NRC does not have a valid water quality permit from the state. Such permits are issued by states under federal law. The plant and the NRC maintain that they do have a valid permit: the one originally issued. The commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, a lawyer, argued the state’s case on May 9.

The Vermont Public Service Board (not to be confused with the Department of Public Service) that regulates state utilities has decided to start all over on Vermont Yankee’s application for a Certificate of Public Good. The board recently held a conference of the parties to get all the issues on the table. The conference also discussed the option of starting all over by opening a new docket, or scrubbing the existing docket of issues struck down by the court when it found in the plant’s favor. A new docket has been opened. A prehearing conference was held, and the board just issued the schedule for proceedings. There will be public hearings in November, followed by sessions with testimony, rebuttal etc. Final briefs will be due August 26, 2013. A decision would follow, and could take months.

Plant opponents held a rally at the plant offices, 10 miles from the plant, attended by more than 1000 people on the first day of the plant’s extended NRC license. Non-violence training had been held, and 130 protestors were arrested for trespassing. The state’s attorney for the county refused once again to take them to court, opting to not waste court time to provide the trespassers with a forum. The rally and arrests provided plenty of media coverage.

A small group of grandmothers was again in court for blocking the plant’s gate. They acted the day after hurricane Irene did major damage in the state, while first responders were busy. Their action on that day was not popular. Their case was scheduled for trial later. It will be interesting to see what happens. (The “Grannies” have claimed that radiation permanently damages the gene pool, a discredited and dangerous argument from the early Eugenics movement—see Yes Vermont Yankee articles here and here.)

Anti-nuke grannies

 

 

 

 

The legislature

Vermont’s citizen legislature recently adjourned after its annual four-month session. The legislature passed a new tax on Vermont Yankee to make up for revenue lost when agreements based on plant purchase and used fuel storage expired. The agreements ended when the state’s Certificate of Public Good (CPG) expired on the same day as the original NRC license. Under state law, an expired CPG remains in effect if renewal proceedings are in progress, which they are. Commentators were quick to point out that the legislature and governor may not like Vermont Yankee, but they don’t mind the revenue it provides them.

The governor has been lampooned for his comments on the legislature’s action on a proposed merger of two electric utilities in the state. One of the utilities was in financial difficulty some years ago, and it was allowed to raise rates to be bailed out. A provision of the agreement was that if the utility were ever sold, the ratepayers and stockholders would be refunded the bailout money.

Now it is proposed to sell the utility for the merger, and the ratepayers are expecting checks for their refunds. The utilities suggest “refunding” the money in the form of energy and money saving investments, claiming that the ratepayers will ultimately save much more than they would gain from direct cash. Many are angry, and the AARP organization has run ads blasting the “non-refund.”

The legislature proposed a bill to order the Public Service Board to require a direct cash refund as part of the merger agreement, which they are reviewing and must approve. The governor wrote to the legislature saying that they should not interfere with the board, because it is the legal body that oversees utilities. Many quickly pointed out that interfering with the board was precisely what the legislature did during Vermont Yankee’s CPG renewal, which led to the federal lawsuit. The governor never objected to that (Yes Vermont Yankee has the details.)

Vermont Yankee’s supporters

We continue our public outreach at every opportunity. Meredith Angwin’s “Yes Vermont Yankee” blog and our “Save Vermont Yankee” Facebook page keep on inspiring supporters.

On April 28, there was a book signing in Keene, N.H., with the author of “Public Meltdown,” Prof. Richard Watts from the University of Vermont. Cheryl Twaorg, whose husband is a senior reactor operator at the Vermont Yankee plant, and Richard Schmidt were there. No opponents showed up, which was surprising, since Antioch New England University, a hotbed of opposition, is in Keene.

Richard Schmidt was on a two-hour radio panel with Meredith Angwin in North Hampton, Mass. The topic was the Vermont Yankee power struggle.

The Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) David Lochbaum appeared at two Massachusetts events on successive nights. The first night was at Plymouth on a panel sponsored by the Freeze Pilgrim group (that is, Freeze relicensing until all Fukushima fixes are done). Russell Gocht, a graduate student at UMass Lowell, represented nuclear power and plant supporters (American Nuclear Society Northeastern Section member Chuck Adey had lined him up at a recent section meeting). The next night, UCS had a panel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Nuclear supporters and students attended. Steve Stamm provided a report. We had encouraged attendance at these events by providing notification and details.

Our flow of letters to newspapers hasn’t stopped. There are continually issues on the whole spectrum of energy policy and technology that provide a springboard for comment.

Vermont Yankee’s opponents

Plant opponents have not “laid down their sword and shields” either. The Fukushima tragedy has provided grist for them to keep up the attack on the MK I containment design, and bring back an old German study on childhood leukemia around nuclear power plants. A letter promoting the study appeared in the Valley News, and another supporter and I had rebuttals published.

The Vermont Yankee opponents and anti-nuclear groups have allied with the Occupy movement. They held a rally where 130 people were arrested. A nuclear supporter took a picture of a sign showing the linkage. No picture of this sign appeared in the media.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shaffer

Howard Shaffer has been an ANS member for 35 years. He has contributed to ASME and ANS Standards committees, ANS committees, national meeting staffs, and his local section, and was the 2001 ANS Congressional Fellow. He is a current member of the ANS Public Information Committee and consults in nuclear public outreach. 

He is coordinator for the Vermont Pilot Project.  Shaffer holds a BSEE from Duke University and an MSNE from MIT. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

 

4th Annual Texas Atomic Film Festival

The 4th annual Texas Atomic Film Festival (TAFF) is being held April 26 to May 3, 2012. The festival attracts short films (3 to 5 minutes) produced by students in nuclear engineering courses at the University of Texas at Austin. A public screening of the films, which focus on nuclear and energy related topics, is being held on April 26 at 12:30 pm at the UT Student Activities Center auditorium.

The goal of TAFF is to provide an opportunity for students to take creative approaches to convey scientific information through short films. Griffin Gardner and Alex Fay are this year’s media judge and technical judge, respectively, and awards will be given in four categories:

  • Best Film
  • Technical Content
  • Editing
  • Audience Award

The Audience Award is based on the number of “likes” accumulated by each film through the Facebook social plugin available on the TAFF website for the 2012 entries.

Please visit the TAFF website, view some of the films in the 2012 Entries section, and vote for your favorites by clicking on the “like” button. You can also follow TAFF and make comments through Twitter by using the hashtag #TAFF2012.

TAFF includes 11 films this year:

  1. How Dangerous is Low Dose Radiation?
  2. An Outlook on Future Energy Solutions
  3. The Legend of HP-Man
  4. Radon—Hazards in the Home: Myths and Facts
  5. The Chicago Pile: A History
  6. The Influence of Nuclear Events on the Public Perception of Nuclear Science
  7. U.S. Electrical Power Production:  A Comparison of Energy Sources
  8. REYOLOGY
  9. Special Report: Nuclear Terrorism
  10. From War to Peace: Non-Proliferation 101
  11. Nuclear by the Numbers

Other schools are invited to participate in next year’s TAFF. If you are interested, please contact Steve Biegalski.  Special thanks to Juan Garcia and Matt Mangum, of the Faculty Innovation Center at UT, for their continued support of TAFF.

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ANS at the USA Science & Engineering Festival

The American Nuclear Society will be participating this weekend in the largest celebration of science in the United States: the 2nd annual USA Science & Engineering Festival.  The finale Expo of the festival will be Saturday and Sunday, April 28-29, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington DC.

The Expo will feature over 3,000 fun, interactive, hands-on exhibits; more than 100 stage shows featuring science celebrities, musicians, magicians, and comedians; and 33 author presentations.

Visit the ANS exhibit (“booth” #2653) during the Expo at the Convention Center to take in some nuclear knowledge. Click here for a map of exhibit locations—we will be in Hall A between the National Robot Fest and the Einstein Stage. The start page for the Expo is here. As you can see, there will certainly be no shortage of things to do!

Expo hours will be 10am-6pm on Saturday and 10am-4pm on Sunday. New this year:  The USA Science & Engineering Festival Book Fair, and a Career Pavilion for high-school students that includes a College Fair, a Job Fair and a Meet the Scientist/Engineer Networking area.

The main idea is to encourage kids to consider careers in science and engineering. The ANS exhibit will be supported by ANS Outreach staff and by members of the Washington, D.C. and nearby ANS Local Sections. The USA Science & Engineering Festival is free of charge, so be sure to visit!

Join the exhibit to talk with young people about nuclear science and technology

If you live in the DC area, please consider volunteering to spend some time with ANS staff and ANS Local Section members talking with young people about nuclear science and technology — email Chuck Vincent, ANS Outreach, for more information.

NAS study of cancer risks near U.S. nuclear facilities

By Rod Adams

The National Academy of Science (NAS) has released phase one of a study titled Analysis of Cancer Risks in Populations Near Nuclear Facilities. The release officially opened a 60-day public comment period in which stakeholders can provide their inputs to help guide the next phases of the study. The project email address that should be used for submitting comments is crs@nas.edu.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission tasked the National Academy of Science to perform the study. The expenditure was considered to be a prudent investment because the existing study on the risk of developing cancer based on proximity to nuclear facilities in the United States is more than 20 years old. In the intervening years, there have been a number of attempts internationally to determine if there is a link between radiation released from nuclear energy facilities and cancer risks; the results of those studies have been inconclusive.

In cases like the announcement of a discovery of a cluster of childhood leukemia cases near the Sellafield facility in Great Britain, the news of results that seemed to indicate a problem received a great deal of publicity. News of the cluster’s discovery was broken during a television program that aired in November 1983. The careful science required to more fully understand the cause of the higher than expected rate of childhood leukemia took decades.

It is likely that few of the people who formed opinions about the radiation-related risk of cancer from the television story or the numerous repetitions of that story have heard anything about the study titled Childhood leukaemia, nuclear sites, and population mixing, which was accepted for publication in the British Journal of Cancer in October 2010. That study showed that there was a strong correlation between population influx in a formerly isolated rural area and the risk of childhood leukemia. That relationship has been found in populations near expansive facilities that had nothing to do with nuclear energy or radiation.

The effort to find out if there is a risk associated with living near a nuclear energy facility is full of scientific obstacles. Many of the challenges that are inherent in the task are detailed in the summary that the NAS released as part of the phase one scoping effort. The listed challenges include the difficulty in finding accurate data that relates cancer incidence to physical addresses, lack of any records related to population mobility in areas of interest, some uncertainty about radiation release data, and the expectation that any increases in cancer related to the measured levels of radiation will be so low as to be statistically hidden in the noise of normal variations.

Of course, scientists who have been tasked with finding ways to perform a study can almost always recommend several methods that might provide useful information—if provided with enough resources. This effort is no exception to that rule; the summary provides no fewer than four potential study designs, each with its own set of limitations and strengths. Not surprisingly, the summary also includes a recommended course of action that would involve a substantial effort in data gathering, modeling, and analysis—assuming that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission decides to proceed with the study.

The final recommendation in the summary is the development of processes for involving and communicating with stakeholders “to achieve effective collaboration with local people and officials and increase social trust and confidence.”

Dr. Arjun Makhijani, a man with a long history of opposition to the use of nuclear energy, strongly supports the effort and expects the NAS to find evidence of risk, especially to children. He intends to provide a substantial input during the comment period. I expect that other professional antinuclear activists will provide their comments and demand to be a part of the stakeholder engagement process.

A number of experts in the field of radiation biology are also preparing to provide comments. Here is an example comment from an e-mail list inhabited by people who have studied radiation health effects for decades:

If the U.S. NRC and these radiation protection folks would only look at the (20-year-old) cell biology evidence instead of their LNT [linear no-threshold] ideology and epidemiology, they would realize that they are trying to measure a cancer risk (radiation-induced DNA damage rate) that is six million (6,000,000) times lower than the spontaneous risk of cancer (i.e., natural DNA damage rate).

The numbers in that comment relate to the fact that the dose rate from licensed nuclear facilities in the United States is less than 1 mSv/year to the most exposed person. There is zero probability that a population exposed to such a dose will exhibit any increase in expected cancer risks. It is always possible, however, to expend a large sum of money and time performing studies and involving a number of stakeholders, many of whom tend not to reveal their actual stake in the matter.

The American Nuclear Society includes experts in the field of radiation biology who should take the time to read the phase one scoping summary, learn more about the proposed study methods, and provide informed comments. The most reasonable decision would be that there are any number of higher priority ways to spend the money and the scientific resources that would be needed to perform the proposed phase two study; it is unlikely to provide any new or useful information.

A more likely decision will be to perform the study, but perhaps a sufficient number of informed comments will prevent initial assumptions about risks from producing yet another study that seems to support the notion that radiation risk is always some number greater than zero—no matter how low the dose.

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Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

NRC/Fukushima hearing in US Senate on Thursday

A hearing titled “Lessons from Fukushima One Year Later: NRC’s Implementation of Recommendations for Enhancing Nuclear Reactor Safety in the 21st Century” will be held in the U.S. Senate on Thursday, March 15, at 10:00 AM EDT. The hearing will be a joint session of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works and the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety.

NRC Commissioners Magwood, Svinicki, Chairman Jaczko, Apostolakis, Ostendorff

Featured testimony will come from NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko and fellow NRC commissioners Kristine Svinicki, George Apostolakis, William Magwood, and William Ostendorff.  The hearing will be webcast at the website for the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

In the aftermath of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, the NRC formed a task force to reevaluate the safety and security of the 104 nuclear power plants in the United States, and develop a series of recommendations based on the lessons learned from Japan. The March 15 hearing will concern the orders, rules, and other actions from the NRC intended to enhance reactor safety and protect public health based on those task force recommendations.

The hearing is a follow-up to the Senate committee’s hearing 0n December 15, 2011, titled “Review of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Near-Term Task Force Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century,: which is archived here. The prepared opening statement of Chairman Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) for that hearing is here. The prepared opening statement of Ranking Minority Member James Inhofe (R., Okla.) is here.

Jaczko and the other commissioners have not always been in agreement on regulatory decisions facing the NRC, notably including a recent 4-1 vote to grant a license to build and operate two reactors at the Vogtle nuclear facility in Georgia.

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ANS Fukushima press conference, March 8 at 10AM EST

The American Nuclear Society Special Committee on Fukushima will issue its full report on March 8 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, at 10AM EST. The press conference will be available for viewing via this link.

The event will also be live tweeted at the ANS twitter feed (@ans_org).

The release of the ANS Special Committee on Fukushima report offers the opportunity to hear an independent, scientifically, and technically informed view on the accident by world-class experts in nuclear science and technology. The leadership of the American Nuclear Society, a scientific and technical organization of 11,600 nuclear professionals, commissioned the Special Committee to provide a clear and concise explanation of what happened during the Fukushima Daiichi accident, and offer recommendations for the nuclear community, for citizens, and for policymakers based on lessons learned from their study of the event.

Special Committee members at the press conference will include:

  • Co-Chair Dale Klein, Ph.D., former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • Co-Chair Michael L. Corradini, Ph.D., vice president/president-elect, American Nuclear Society, Wisconsin Distinguished Professor of nuclear engineering and engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin
  • Regulatory Issues Lead Jacopo Buongiorno, Ph.D., professor of nuclear engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Study Director Paul Dickman, Senior Policy Fellow with Argonne National Laboratory

Topics addressed in the press conference and in the report will include risk-informed regulation, hazards from extreme natural phenomena, multiple-unit site considerations, hardware design modifications, severe accident management guidelines, command and control during a reactor accident, emergency planning, health impacts, and societal risk comparison.

The full report will be available for download Thursday morning at the ANS Special Committee on Fukushima dedicated website.

In addition, ANS Special Committee on Fukushima members Professor Akira Tokuhiro and Professor Hisashi Ninokata will hold a press conference at 3:30 – 4:30 Japan Time on Friday, March 9, at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo, Japan, concerning the ANS Special Committee on Fukushima report release. More information is available at this link.

Visit this ANS Nuclear Cafe post for interviews with the Special Committee Co-Chairs Klein and Corradini concerning the release of the report.

ANS President Eric Loewen and Special Committee Co-Chairs Klein and Corradini discussed the goals of the report in interviews at the 2011 ANS Annual Meeting:

Can we repeat facts about Fukushima often enough to overcome fears?

by Rod Adams

We are within one week of the one year anniversary of the Great North East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. That powerful punch from nature slowly destroyed four out of six of the nuclear units at Fukushima Daiichi while the world watched with rapt attention.

However, as many nuclear experts predicted at the time of the accident, the defense-in-depth strategy worked well. The end results have been far better than were predicted using some of the fantasy-inspired “worst case scenarios” propagated by antinuclear activists and by researchers working several decades ago – before much data had been gathered and digested.

The painstakingly-gathered empirical data from this unfortunate theory-to-practice exercise have validated the recently released State of the Art Reactor Consequences Analysis, which computed a one in a billion chance that an accident at typical licensed nuclear reactors would harm anyone in the general public.

The total quantity of long-lived radioactive isotopes released from all three of the melted cores was approximately 11 kilograms. None of the material stored in the spent fuel pools was released. There has not been, and never will be, any injuries more serious than a mild sunburn to two workers, from the radiation released into the environment from the melted nuclear fuel inside the plant pressure vessels and containment structures.

Despite the lack of any negative radiation health effects, there are people who relish in stimulating as much fear, uncertainty, doubt and stress about radiation and nuclear energy as they possibly can. They are working overtime to obscure any good news and to label the people who share truthful information as nuclear industry PR hacks, apologists, or even worse.

While participating in discussion threads associated with recent reports published in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Time magazine and Scientific American, I have seen nuclear supporters accused of killing babies, being mere industry shills, and of being completely insensitive to the continued suffering of the Japanese people.

Unlike people who have been trained in nuclear sciences and engineering, facts do not matter as much to antinuclear activists as repeatedly telling the tale they want people to hear. Greenpeace has released a report titled Lessons from Fukushima featuring a chapter by Arnie Gundersen that claims that the nuclear industry is a prime example of regulatory capture, despite being one of the most tightly regulated industries in the US, Europe and Japan.

Karl Grossman, a man who has been making a living on the antinuclear lecture and book circuit since the Three Mile Island accident, continues to claim that Fukushima will be worse than Chernobyl. He also claims that Chernobyl has already killed nearly a million people, instead of the less than 100 reported by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effect of Atomic Radiation report as having died in the 25 years since the accident.

Like Helen Caldicott, Grossman continues to spout the belief that Yablokov’s thoroughly discredited book titled Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment is the definitive work on the 1986 accident. In the imaginary world where Caldicott and Grossman spend their time, the thousands of other researchers who studied the accident and came to completely different conclusions were either misinformed, bought by the powerful nuclear industry, or just plain lying.

The antinuclear opposition also spreads fear by describing effects using unfamiliar, frightening units. Instead of saying that a total of 11 kilograms of material (out of approximately 60,000 kilograms of fuel per unit) escaped from the reactor pressure vessels, people who discourage the beneficial use of nuclear energy say that the plants “spewed” 36,000 terabecquerels of radioactivity. (A terabecquerel of Cs-137 has a mass of 3.2 grams.)

If that number does not scare people thoroughly enough, some nuclear opponents compare the cesium emissions from Fukushima to the cesium emissions from the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Hiroshima bomb produced its explosive power fissioning about 1 kilogram of U-235. The 6.3% fission yield for Cs-137 means that Little Boy, the Hiroshima bomb, produced a little less than 30 grams of Cs-137. (89 terabecquerels at 3.2 gms/terabecquerel).

In the eyes of people who hate nuclear energy, that means that the melted Fukushima reactors did not release a mass of radioactive cesium that is about half the weight of the backpack I routinely carry when I spend a weekend on the Appalachian Trail. Instead, those reactors released 400 times as much radioactive cesium as was released by The Bomb!

That is a great piece of propaganda. It sounds really bad while using very few words. Contradicting the scary statement with logical reasoning requires too detailed of an explanation to be useful to a newspaper or television show.

There is, however, reason to be hopeful that the end result of the Fukushima accident on nuclear energy will be less damaging to the ultimate success of the technology than the end result of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents.

Unlike the period following the Three Mile Island accident, the public conversation has broadened considerably. Discourse is no longer dominated by broadcast television networks or major printed newspapers. It is not dominated by the people who have been able to spend years working their way to the front of journalist contact lists by always being ready with pithy, if often false, quotes.

Instead, people who understand nuclear technology are supporting each other, using a wider variety of media access points and are participating in active public outreach campaigns.

On March 8 at 10AM EST, the American Nuclear Society, a professional society with 11,000 members, will be holding a news conference at the National Press Club to announce the release of its long awaited report on the lessons learned from the accident.

I am looking forward to reading that report and then cooperating with other nuclear professionals to ensure that its factual material is repeated as often as the tripe that emanates from the mouths and keyboards of Caldicott, Grossman, Wasserman, Gunter, Lovins, and so many other professional opponents of nuclear energy.

Like many of my colleagues, I feel a sense of personal responsibility to do something to alleviate the suffering of the victims who have a far greater probability of negative health effects from irrational radiation fears than they do from radiation itself. Spending some of my spare time to ease their fears, reduce their stress and enable their safe return to their ancestral homes is an investment worth making.

There has been one result from the accident that I never would have predicted. A year ago, I could not imagine that two countries (Germany and Japan) that were famous for their technological skills and rational decision making would have decided to shut down undamaged reactors in favor of spending a growing share of their national income to make the fossil fuel industry increasingly richer. If anyone can think of ways to influence the decision process in those two key countries, I am listening.

 

Adams

Rod Adams is a pro-nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

 

Fukushima health effects

The American Nuclear Society Special Committee on Fukushima has been conducting a comprehensive study of the events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant following the Great East Japan earthquake of 2011. The special committee was tasked with providing a clear and concise explanation of what happened during the Fukushima Daiichi accident, and offer recommendations based on lessons learned. A report from the special committee will be released at a press conference on Thursday, March 8, at 10AM EST. The press conference will be webcast at http://www.visualwebcaster.com/event.asp?id=85244, and the report will be available for download at http://fukushima.ans.org/.

The report will include a detailed analysis and assessment of radiological health effects resulting from the accident.

The HPS Panel: Robert Emery, John Boice, Robert Gayle, Howard Dickson, Kathryn Higley, Richard Vetter

Meanwhile, the Health Physics Society (HPS) on March 1 held a press conference addressing Fukushima radiological health effects. Major online media coverage of the HPS conference included the New York Times Green Blog, Sizing Up Health Impacts a Year After Fukushima, and the Wall Street Journal Japan Realtime,  Fukushima Health Impact: Minimal?

What have been the basic findings, so far, of the HPS radiation experts? As paraphrased in the New York Times article: “Health impacts from the radioactive materials released in the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns will probably be too small to be easily measured… And the area cordoned off by the Japanese government as uninhabitable is probably far too large.”

Caracappa

Peter Caracappa, chief radiation officer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, assisted the ANS Special Committee on Fukushima on radiological issues, and was interviewed in this very informative recent article in Scientific American: Japan’s Post-Fukushima Earthquake Health Woes Go Beyond Radiation Effects.

Radiation monitoring continues in Japan, and long-term studies are underway.

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A Fukushima investigative scorecard

by Leslie Corrice

Since the Fukushima accident last March, several Japanese investigative groups have been created to try to establish what actually happened. As the number of groups has grown, some confusion has understandably emerged. Here’s a “scorecard” of the five primary Japanese investigative commissions, with a brief description of each.

  • Fukushima Nuclear Accident Investigative Committee This committee is comprised of in-house executives and managers from Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) home office in Tokyo. There are two sub-committees: (1) The “Investigative Committee” has eight members, chaired by Vice President Masao Yamazaki. Few members have actual nuclear engineering or operating experience. Most TEPCO executives are former bureaucrats recruited from the Diet (Japanese parliament). (2) The “Accident Verification Committee” is chaired by Professor Emeritus Genki Yagawa, supported by five university academics and an attorney. All six are unabashed advocates for nuclear energy. Their joint interim report, issued December 2, 2011, admits to insufficient tsunami protection and focuses on the technical aspects of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi. Nearly half of the report is about the Fukushima Daini nuclear power station, 10 km (abotu 6.2 miles) south of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, which essentially survived the tsunami unscathed.
  • The Investigative Committee on the Accidents at Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations of Tokyo Electric Power Company This “committee” was established by then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan on June 7, 2011. Chaired by Chemistry Professor Yotaro Hatamura, the panel includes three academic administrators, one radiation expert, an attorney, a public prosecutor, a former Sapporo chief justice, one anti-nuclear author, and the mayor of Kawamata town (Fukushima Prefecture). The mayor is a staunch nuclear critic who has said, “I think it was a mistake that this dangerous thing was considered safe.” There are two technical advisers from Japan’s non-nuclear engineering academia. There appears to be no nuclear engineering or operations experience within the membership. The interim report’s executive summary of December 26, 2011, focuses primarily on blaming TEPCO for inadequate tsunami protection and poor information-sharing during the first months after March 11, the government’s inadequate disaster prevention program, and insufficient local community preparation. The committee has no legal power to subpoena or swear in witnesses.
  • Examination Committee on [the] Accident at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Established by Japan Nuclear Technology Institute (JANTI), this committee is comprised of 19 managers from the nine Japanese utility companies that operate nuclear power plants (excluding TEPCO), five managers and/or division heads from the three prominent reactor technology suppliers in Japan (Toshiba, Hitachi, and Mitsubishi), one safety official from Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited, one nuclear construction manager, and an operations official from JANTI. Operations manager Takeshi Takahashi of TEPCO is an “observer”. This committee’s report on the accident was issued January 25, 2012, containing detailed technical information including accident timelines for each unit, an analysis of accident causes, lessons learned, and recommendations for accident preparedness and operator emergency training. Based on the report’s conclusions, the JANTI committee has recently issued a formal criticism of Kan’s Investigative Committee’s December report, identifying four problems: (1) an accurate picture of the Fukushima accident is not given, (2) an insufficient investigation as to the cause(s) of the accident, (3) insufficient analysis of emergency actions and background, and (4) many proposals are not based on logical analysis and/or do not match reality.
  • The Independent Investigating Commission of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident This group was created on January 2, 2012, by the Japanese Diet under Japanese law and is buoyed by the legal power of the Diet. Witnesses can be sworn in, but only if it is deemed necessary by the group. The commission also has subpoena power. Chaired by Kiyoshi Kurokawa, professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, the ~60 members are a mish-mash of politicians, private sector officials, attorneys, and at least one nuclear engineer. This commission is generally viewed as the most politically and ideologically neutral of the bunch. They were the first to “interview” Naoto Kan (former prime minister) on January 16, but unfortunately the session was behind closed doors and there is no formal report on what Kan told the commission members. The commission’s first report is due in late spring.
  • The Independent Investigation Commission of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation (RJIF) This commission is comprised of six academic members headed by attorney Koichi Kitazawa, and includes a former International Atomic Energy Agency official, a prosecutor, a corporate strategist, an economist, and an earth technologist, supported by 30 researchers and lawyers. This group is intended to gather information about the accident and subsequent public protective actions by interviewing the citizens of the Tohoku Region. The group says that it will collect information on all aspects of the situation. RJIF plans to issue a final report on March 11, 2012. There has been virtually no press coverage on the group or its progress.

The least agenda-tainted technical analysis is probably the JANTI commission’s report. Perhaps the commission that might most affect Japan’s nuclear energy issues will be the Diet’s Independent Investigation Committee, because it has the legal weight of the government body behind it to promote the appearance of honest testimony. Which of these groups might best soothe the current state of nationwide nuclear angst is anybody’s guess.

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Corrice

Leslie Corrice is a former Navy ELT (engineering lab technician) with 15 years of commercial nuclear experience, as well as 15 years as a high school teacher/tutor in math and science. Les operates the website http://www.hiroshimasyndrome.com/, including a popular thrice-weekly posting of Fukushima updates.

ANS to hold teacher workshop in Phoenix, AZ

ANS November 2011 Teachers Workshop

Hands-on activity during a November 2011 ANS Teachers Workshop

The American Nuclear Society’s Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information and the ANS Outreach Department will be sponsoring a one-day teacher workshop on Sunday, February 26, in Phoenix, Ariz. The workshop—Detecting Radiation in Our Radioactive World—is intended for science educators (including biology, chemistry, earth science, physics, physical science, life science, environmental, and general science teachers) at the high school and middle school levels. The workshop will be held prior to WM2012, the international waste management conference that takes place annually in Phoenix.

The following video provides feedback from teachers and presenters who attended the June 2011 ANS Teachers Workshop, held in Hollywood, Fla.

 

The full-day workshop will prepare attendees to teach the basics about radiation, how we detect radiation, and the uses of nuclear science and technology in society. Teachers who complete the workshop will receive a wealth of materials—background information, hands-on activities, and supplementary resources—and a Geiger counter. Career opportunities in nuclear science and technology will be highlighted during the sessions.

“We’re excited to be offering this overview of radiation and nuclear science to teachers in the Phoenix area,” said Chuck Vincent, ANS Outreach administrator. “Workshop participants are always eager to receive their free Geiger counters and learn about hands-on demonstrations that they can use in their classrooms.”

Currently, scheduled presenters include:

  • Mary Lou Dunzik-Gougar, assistant professor of nuclear engineering, Idaho State University, and research scientist at Idaho National Laboratory
  • Mansel Nelson, program coordinator, environmental education outreach program, Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, Northern Arizona University
  • Terry Price, mechanical engineer, Palo Verde Generation Station of Arizona Public Service Company
  • Walter Thomas, chemistry teacher and district science coordinator, Wickenburg Unified School District, Wickenburg, Ariz.
  • Debra Thrall, executive director, Albert I. Pierce Foundation, Albuquerque, N.M.

Please visit the ANS website for more information, including an announcement and online registration form. The workshop will be limited in size to optimize interaction with presenters. Registration is on a first-come first-served basis.

There is a $60 nonrefundable registration fee—which includes continental breakfast, lunch, printed materials, and a Civil Defense Surplus analog radiation monitor—for teachers to reserve a place at the workshop.  The registration deadline is 12:00 noon (Central Time), Tuesday, February 14.

Funding for the workshop is provided in part by individual and organizational contributions to ANS. Additional support is provided by Waste Management Symposia and WM2012.

Little ado about nothing

A so-called scientific article issued on December 19 by Joseph Mangano and Janette Sherman purports that an estimated 14,000 excess deaths in the United States are linked to the radioactive fallout from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors in Japan. The article, published in the International Journal of Health Services, is available by clicking here.

Not much media attention has been paid to the article, which has been labeled as “flawed” by the Nuclear Energy Institute. NEI, on its blog site, subsequently posted columns about the article and about Mangano, who has a history as an anti-nuclear writer. In one of the posts, NEI points out that “Mike Moyer, the writer at Scientific American who so expertly debunked Joe Mangano’s ‘research’ in June, had a chance to read Mangano’s latest coauthored piece.”

Moyer wrote:

No attempt is made at providing systematic error estimates, or error estimates of any kind. No attempt is made to catalog any biases that may have crept into the analysis, though a cursory look finds biases a-plenty (the authors are anti-nuclear activists unaffiliated with any research institution). The analysis assumes that the plume arrived on U.S. shores, spread everywhere, instantly, and started killing people immediately. It assumes that the “excess” deaths after March 20 are a real signal, not just a statistical aberration, and that every one of them is due to Fukushima radiation.

Moyer went on to say:

The publication of such sloppy, agenda-driven work is a shame. Certainly radiation from Fukushima is dangerous, and could very well lead to negative health effects—even across the Pacific. The world needs to have a serious discussion about what role nuclear power should play in a power-hungry post-Fukushima world. But serious, informed, fact-based debate is a difficult enough goal to achieve without having to shout above noise like this.

Others have chimed in to debunk Mangano’s junk science. You can read about it by visiting NEI’s blog site here and scrolling down to the article titled “Dr. Robert Peter Gale’s Statement on the Mangano-Sherman Report on Fukushima Fallout.”

NEI’s blog site also has other posts on the Mangano-Sherman report, which you can find by scrolling down at the site.

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Henri Becquerel and the Discovery of Radioactivity

By Paul Bowersox

December 15, 1852, was the birthday of French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel, who discovered a completely unknown property of matter in March 1896.

Becquerel

Some might say Becquerel’s discovery of “radioactivity” was a lucky accident—but as the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote in the 1st century, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Becquerel was prepared and had the opportunity, and here’s how he made the astonishing discovery of radioactivity.

X-Rays

The first human x-ray: Bertha Roentgen’s hand

In January 1896, Wilhelm Röntgen astonished the world by circulating photographs of the bones in his hand, taken with the aid of his new discovery: X-rays. The photographs of the interior of the human body caused a worldwide sensation that year. It also stirred Antoine Henri Becquerel to action. Becquerel thought that the X-rays were coming from a region of Röntgen’s vacuum tube made phosphorescent by the cathode rays traveling through it, and as a world expert in phosphorescence, he immediately committed to find out whether all phosphorescent material produced these extraordinary X-rays.

Phosphorescence

First, let us illuminate the subject of phosphorescence, which was mysterious and a hot topic of research in the late 1800s. While luminescence is the emission of light by a substance not resulting from heat, phosphorescense is the special case of a material emitting light for some period of time after it has absorbed photons. It would take decades of research and the theory of quantum mechanics to construct a model of how a material could “store” energy and then slowly emit it in the form of light long after the source of energy had been removed.

Normal fluorescence involves, roughly, an electron of an atom being excited to a higher energy state or “orbital”—by absorbing a photon of energy—and then returning to its ground state, releasing a photon of lower wavelength, almost instantaneously.  But in the special case of phosphorescence in some materials, an electron can move to a so-called “forbidden” higher energy state by way of absorption of a photon of energy—and the process of releasing the energy from such a forbidden state occurs more slowly, overall, than the straightforward case of fluorescence—resulting in a material “glowing” for longer periods after exposure to photons.

Not phosphorescence

Unaware of any of this, Becquerel nonetheless placed his potassium uranyl sulfate K2UO2(SO4)2 compound onto photographic plates, covered the plates with black paper to protect them from light, and put them on the windowsill so that the uranium compound could absorb light and begin to glow. As he expected, the rays from the phosphorescing uranyl sulfate penetrated the paper and exposed the photograph, and even penetrated metallic objects as well. Perhaps not as clearly as Röntgen’s vacuum tube X-rays would have done, but a marvelous result nonetheless.

Becquerel radioactivity photo – a maltese cross medal is absorbing radiation in lower patch

Then something unexpected and amazing happened. Becquerel was ready to perform more windowsill experiments, but cloudy days ensued and so he placed the plates and minerals inside of a dark desk drawer. No light absorption or phosphorescence was occurring in there, and simply on a hunch (or more probably, he was just being thorough), Becquerel developed these plates anyway, expecting very faint or no image at all. Instead, he found intense images—in effect, the uranium was emitting X-rays all on its own. To the scientists of the day, this was astounding—energy being created out of “nothing”—except that the experiment was easy for them to duplicate to duplicate Becquerel’s findings. Becquerel also quickly found that the effect did not diminish with time—the uranium disulfate continued to constantly emit energy—and pure metallic uranium worked even better.

We now know that the uranium was emitting a wide range of energy besides X-rays, in a spontaneous process soon to become known as radioactivity. We also know that the uranium was spontaneously decaying to a lower energy isotope while emitting alpha particles, with “daughter nuclides” emitting beta particles. Becquerel, as well as Marie and Pierre Curie, were instrumental in researching this new and incredible property of matter called radioactivity, and all three shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903. And, while it is often stated in games of chance, “I’d rather be lucky than good,” Becquerel was both lucky and good—his lifetime of preparation in the study of phosphorescence and phosphorescent materials, his expertise in the scientific method and in laboratory uses of photography, and a great innate curiosity equipped him to make one of the more amazing discoveries in the history of science.

Afternote: Becquerel (Bq)

The Becquerel (Bq) is the international unit of radioactivity, named after our pioneer Henri Becquerel. It is defined as one atomic nucleus in a material decaying per second.

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Bowersox

Paul Bowersox’s love for nuclear history will never decay. He is a regular contributor to the Nuclear Cafe!