Letter To The Editor: The Cost Of Ignorance

By Dr. T. Douglas Reilly
Physicist, retired from LANL, EURATOM, US DOE, and the IAEA

Am-241 from Santa Fe to LANL:
A recent local incident involved a radioactive americium source (Am-241) found in Santa Fe and tranferred to LANL This cost $6 million (paid by the business owner) and involved 40 people. The source was actually of no health or safety concern and could have been transported in a pickup by one or two people. Ignorance of ionizing radiation led to an unnecessary action that cost significant money.
Natural Atomic and Nuclear Radiation
Radiation is around and inside us always. Ignorance of this fact of nature promotes the fear a large part of the public has. It’s been promoted and broadcast widely for decades by news media and various fear-mongering organizations.
The standard unit of radiation dose in the USA is the rem. For natural radiation sources; medical and dental x-rays, including CT scans; and most nuclear medicine procedures, it is common to use millirems (mrem), i,e, one-thousandth of a rem. At sea level the annual natural background dose is about 300 mrem; at 7000' it is about 550 mrem. Approximately 15 percent comes from within our body. This is due to the potassium (K) that is essential for life; all potassium includes the radioactive isotope K-40 that has a very long half-life.
Nuclear Power:
Fear of nuclear reactors and radiation has long been propagated by fear-mongering, anti-nuclear groups and the news media. Ignorance of the actual safety of nuclear power has cost the world an enormaous amount of money.
It is definitely wise to develop renewable energy sources like Solar, Wind, Geothermal, Hydro, and Tidal. Solar and Wind are of little use when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. We must not ignore the hazards of Solar and Wind. The production of photovoltaic cells requires large quantities of very dangerous chemicals that must be disposed of carefully. Wind turbines kill many thousands of birds each year, especially raptors like eagles and hawks. There are ways to store solar and wind energy. One way, of course, uses batteries containing toxic materials the disposal of which is difficult and hazardous.
Ignorance allows the media and anti-nuclear groups to broadcast false results of events like Three-Mile-Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima Daiichi. The scientific facts are that TMI killed no one; Chernobyl at killed, at most, 4000 (definitely a disaster, but not the 20 million deaths you can still hear even on responsible media), and no one has been killed, or even seriously injured by radiation from the Fukushima disaster. More than 20 thousand were killed by the earthquake and tsunami.
Electrical cars:
Electric cars themselves are minorly polluting; however, almost 70 percent of the electricity to charge them today in the USA comes from fossil-fuel. The International Agency for Energy (IAE) in Paris forecasts that over 80 percent of electricity in the world will still be produced from fossil fuels in 2025. Electric cars depend on large batteries, often lithium hydrides, that are dangerous to produce, sometimes catch fire, and again use hazardous materials in their production, use, and disposal.
As an aside, the cost of all-electric cars is coming down, but it is still beyond the reach of the general public. Hybrid vehicles, on the other hand, are a very intelligent, efficient, and less polluting than the all-gasoline vehicles.
I could continue with other subjects, but this is sufficient for now.