“What is radiation?”

That simple, three-word question largely embodies the concerns that many Americans have about nuclear power.

The answer can be just as complicated as one wants to make it. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, radiation is “energy radiated in the form of waves or particles.” Jim Hopson puts it more simply in Heritage’s new video vignette when he states that “Radiation is simply energy in motion.”

Regardless, the important point is that radiation is not inherently bad or scary.

The fact is that radiation comes in many varieties. For example, the sun emits solar radiation onto the earth every day in the form of sunlight. This radiation is critical to life on earth. It powers photosynthesis for crops, trees, and vegetation, and it heats up the earth’s surface to life-sustaining temperatures. While too much sunlight can be harmful, no one argues that we should try to shut off the sun.

Rather, we approach the sun with respect for its power and utilize it responsibly and safely.

The radiation produced from nuclear power should be approached with that same kind of respect. Learning more about radiation and the presence it has in our daily lives will help many skeptics view nuclear power in a new, positive light.

Not just a nuclear power thing

Radiation is all around us and so it is important to put radiation exposure into context. Radiation exposure is measured in something called a millirem (mrem). The preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that doses up to 5,000mrem result in no increased risk of cancer or other adverse health effects. According to the EPA, the average person is exposed to 620mrem each year. About half of the average exposure comes from natural background radiation and the other from man-made sources.

The average person will consume about 30mrem annually just from the food and water that they eat and drink. In fact, all organic matter contains small amounts of radioactive isotopes such as potassium and radium. This makes bananas one of the most radioactive foods due to their potassium content. Even beer has trace amounts of radioactive potassium. But, no one has ever proposed boycotting bananas and beer to avoid radioactivity.

Man-made radiation is present and useful in a host of industries other than nuclear power. A single chest x-ray exposes the patient to 4mrem, four times the amount contracted annually by residents living near a nuclear facility. During a cross-country flight, passengers are exposed to about 2-5mrem from the increased cosmic radiation at high altitudes. Most people would never dream of avoiding x-rays or airplane travel for the sake of reducing their exposure to radiation. Just as the medical and transportation fields manage and monitor radiation safely and effectively to produce the maximum benefits with the least amount of exposure, so too does the nuclear power industry.

Time, distance, shielding

Each type of radiation comes with its own set of safety precautions. But in general, safety is discussed in terms of time, distance, and shielding. To protect yourself from radiation you limit the time you spend near the source, maximize the distance between you and it, and shield yourself with a protective barrier. For example, when you are outside in the hot sun, you want to protect yourself from UVA/UVB radiation. In order to do so, you try and limit the time you spend outdoors and you slather on some sunscreen.

While sunscreen won’t do much for you around nuclear radiation, power plant workers and the public are protected using the same principles. Workers in the plant spend limited amounts of time with the radioactive materials and wear radiation monitors to ensure that they are not exposed to amounts above the limits of safety set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Workers will also use remote-controlled machinery when necessary to diminish their radiation exposure. In terms of shielding, oftentimes just your clothes can protect you from the radiation. When dealing with more intense radiation sources, such as nuclear fuel, several layers of shielding are used to protect both workers and the public. The fuel rods are contained in zirconium alloy tubing encased inside a steel pressure vessel up to two feet thick, which is then surrounded by a concrete containment structure at least three feet thick.

Learn more about radioactivity and the part it plays in nuclear power in the new video “What is Radiation?.” Heritage also explores the science behind nuclear energy and its role in the American energy landscape in the 40-minute film Powering America