Nuclear power and radiation exposure: should you worry?

Mention nuclear power to someone, and, of course, the subject of radiation exposure comes up. Radiation is a subject that, rightly or wrongly, strikes fear into a lot of hearts. But why?

Koeberg Nuclear Power Station
Image by Mark H via Flickr

Some people believe that there is no level of exposure which is safe, and that any radiation of any kind must be avoided. Some believe that nuclear power stations emit radiation, much as coal-fired stations emit smoke. Political parties like Europe Ecologie even claim, in their manifesto, that we should abandon nuclear power in France because of the radiation it puts out. These views are very widely held, but is there any truth in them?

I don’t think so. I think that radiation exposure can be perfectly safe providing the level is low enough, because zero exposure is simply not possible. You and I are exposed to several sources of background radiation on a constant basis, and I feel just fine, thank you very much! Let me tell you about some of these sources.

One source is my own body. No, I don’t glow in the dark, but like all people, my body emits a low level of background radiation. Potassium and carbon isotopes present in the body contribute about one tenth of the total radiation we receive.

Radiation also reaches us from outer space, and it comes up from the ground. It varies from place to place, but there’s nowhere on earth that you can avoid it. Medical procedures, such as x-rays and scans, also contribute to our exposure.

What if we stay indoors, and never go to the doctor? Alas, that might not help. Many things found indoors emit low levels of radiation. Granite, which we might use for our kitchen workspace, is one example. Natural gas, which we use to heat our homes and cook our food, is another. Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas, can build up in confined spaces such as homes. Radon accounts for fully half of the exposure we get. So staying indoors might well increase your exposure!

Many buildings, such as Grand Central Station in New York, have higher than average background radiation levels, because of the materials they were constructed with. The radiation emitted by Grand Central Station exceeds the levels allowed for a nuclear power plant. Think about that next time you’re waiting for a train!

Taking the plane may not be much better. Airline pilots and frequent flyers can receive twice as much radiation as those of us who stay on the ground, because the thinner air at high altitude provides less protection against radiation from space.

What about nuclear power stations, how much radiation do we get from them? Not much. About 0.014%. That means that, of your daily dose of radiation, nuclear power accounts for 12 seconds worth. Nuclear power plants may actually reduce your radiation exposure, because the fossil fuels they displace emit more radiation than they do!

Of course, too much radiation is dangerous. Radiation can and has killed people. But it’s the dose that makes the poison. You can enjoy a beer or a glass of wine from time to time without long-term effects, but drink a bottle of whisky a day and you can expect your liver to pack up. You can smoke the occasional cigar with no worries, but smoke 40 cigarettes a day and don’t be surprised if you end up with lung cancer. So many of the things that we encounter or enjoy in everyday life are toxic in large quantities, yet we don’t notice any adverse effects if we keep our exposure low.

So, you and I are surrounded by radiation, wherever we are and whatever we do. It’s not because we have nuclear power stations, either, the dose they give us is nothing to worry about. Is there any form of radiation that does cause me concern? Well, yes, there is. I try to avoid getting sunburn.

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