Thursday, March 10, 2011

Matters of Scale

Climate change and energy independence are both matters of scale which can create a paradox if you let them. Maybe I have been reading to many statistical blogs, but the paradox thing fascinates me.

How much is too much can lead to a paradox if the definition of too much does not make enough sense to enough people. Too much can be defined overly precise so that people get lost in all the possibilities. It can also be too vague so that no action will seem logical to the majority of people. The weird thing is that climate change and energy independence both suffer from too precise and too vague definitions, which is a paradox of a paradox.

The matter of scale is a precision that confuses average people all the time that just adds to the problem. It makes it more difficult to simplify the understanding of the problems that lead to the perception of a paradox.

God awful big numbers and unfamiliar units, prefixes etc. immediately make understanding difficult. The bullshit detector has tools to help you grasp some of the basics needed to understand the situation, but most people really don't have the time to even brush up on the fair simple things we slept through in high school. So people tend to accept things they don't understand which leads to being mislead.

Nuclear energy suffers greatly from people being mislead. There are risks in every type of energy, but the more misunderstood risks are scary and so complicated to communicate, that people avoid them even if they are less risky. This sounds like double speak, but try to keep listening.

People think about the "China Syndrome" when the conversation turns to nuclear energy and oppose nuclear because of a movie. Some of those same people will play the lottery. The odds of winning the lottery vary, but 1 in 140 million is not usual for a few million dollar prize. The odds of a "China Syndrome" event are zero. The term was coined as what could be that absolute worst thing that could happen in a nuclear reactor, regardless of how improbable. A frustrated nuclear physicist said the core could burn all the way through the Earth and end up in China. You should note that he did not say that the core could explode like an a-bomb, because that is even more unlikely. So a chance in Hell may be larger than no chance in Hell. You have infinitely greater odds of winning the lottery than there being a "China Syndrome" event.

Are there risks in using nuclear energy that mean something? Of course and they range from no big deal to serious like anything else. It is just a technology that is unfamiliar to the majority of people.

Exposure to radiation is a risk with a high possibility of occurring. All radiation though is not created equal. I talked before about alpha and beta emitters. These are the two most likely types of radiation people near the reactor will be exposed to.

Alpha particles are the largest form of radiation particle that you might be exposed to. They are two protons and two neutrons like the core of a helium atom. The fuel used for the reactor is an alpha particle emitter. Just about anything will stop an alpha particle, a sheet of paper or a pair of gloves will shield you. You may have seen pictures of uranium pellets being held by someone with gloves. Television and movies have scary story lines where some bad guy is smuggling plutonium and they end up getting sick because they were stupid enough to smuggle the radioactive material in their briefcase. It is a fictional story meant to be entertaining not real though. You probably have some plutonium or Americium in your house. It is part of your smoke detector. Most of the dreaded nuclear waste is spent fuel which is an alpha particle emitter. Do you run in fear when you see a semi that may be loaded with smoke detectors?

Beta particles are smaller than the alpha particles. They are free electrons and more dangerous than alpha particles. Potassium 40 is a beta particle emitter. You can see the post on the banana radioactive scale for more information. Since electrons are smaller they are more difficult to stop. You are likely to be exposed to beta particles if you work around a nuclear power plant. Then you are exposed to beta particles every day. They are a part of nearly every thing you use, drink or eat. Old style television set emitted beta particles. That is why you use to be told not to sit too close to the television. The water you drink, the bananas you eat contain element that are a beta particle emitters. If you plan to smuggle some radioactive beta particle emitters you should buy one of the aluminum briefcases to shield yourself from the "BETA Rays"

I didn't mention Gamma rays because you are unlikely to be exposed to gamma rays working or living near a nuclear power plant. Unless you really get confused and walk into the containment vessel while the reactor is running. Power plants make that pretty hard to do.

Nuclear power plants are allowed to vent a small amount of radiation. The limits are much less than the background radiation you are exposed to every day. So there is nearly a 100% chance that working in a nuclear power plant you would be exposed to some radiation produced at the plant. I may later go into the risks of different accidents happening at a nuclear power plant, but for this post I will stop here.

The paradox here is that misinformation and poor communications cause a valuable clean energy to be shunned. Explaining the actual risks and limits that should be assigned to the risks is nearly impossible. Explaining that the average on the job exposure to harmful radiation is four or more times greater for an airline flight crew than a nuclear power plant worker is lost because of irrational unfounded fears. There are real risks and precautions required for nuclear safety, but the conversation never gets there without basic understanding first.

Now, people will have to accept nuclear energy, but the additional unwarranted restrictions because of the unfounded fears will drive the cost much higher. The scale of the real risk is lost.

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