A Shock Doctrine for Nuclear Energy: Radiation as Electroshock

It has been almost four years since the rapid, unplanned decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi NPP occurred in March 2011, yet it remains difficult to make people appreciate the scale of the dangers involved in a nuclear reactor core meltdown. It just makes no intuitive sense that a few buildings smaller than a Costco store could be so dangerous to so many life forms near and far from the site of what the media like to call the “accident” at the “crippled” power plant. For most people, Fuku-1 is just a ruined industrial site on a few hectares of land in a rural seaside community. The accident is over, clean it up, scrape the cores into a trash bin and be done with it. That seems to be as much as the public wants to think about it. Again, intuitive knowledge would say that a few tons of melted metal are an unsightly mess, but not something that people in Tokyo need to worry about.
Decay scheme for the isotope Iodine 131. keV=electron volt.
Iodine 131 decays to Xenon 131, releasing 971 keV in the process.
It is very difficult to make people appreciate just how deadly these melted cores are, and of course there are many vested interests that don’t want the public think about it much. It’s been convenient to not make people dwell on the problem.
Nonetheless, the destroyed, not crippled, plant is a long way from being cleaned up. As one headline put it in an understatement this week, the “most difficult work” lies ahead. Indeed. The fact is, no living thing can get close to the melted cores because the radiation levels are high enough to cause instant death. Even the robots get fried when they go in to take a few video clips. The containment structures are ruptured, so there is no way to approach the cores and begin dismantling the ruined reactors. Even if there were a way to do it, the work of drilling and chipping at the melted and solidified fuel would send radioactive dust back into the environment. The safest thing to do may be to just abandon the site and leave it as a lasting testament to our civilization.
But who really has the capacity to think about this? Most people have other things to worry about, or they just won’t take an interest in learning a bit of nuclear physics or contemplating the jam the human race has got itself into. The human brain has not evolved to avoid dangers like radiation, so the subject is beyond the reach of intuitive psychology. Even before there were scientifically literate people, it was natural to expect a thrown object to travel in an arc. But no one expects to get sick and die within hours in the presence of certain rocks. Radiation might as well be in the realm of the uncanny and supernatural. It is voodoo action at a distance, a long-term magic spell that can make a person drop dead one year or ten years into the future. Paradoxically, it connects the rationalism of the scientific era back with the superstitious beliefs of the past.
So it is not easy to convey to the majority of people why they should worry about having nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants in their communities. They seem to be ordinary objects, and radiation is intangible. However, I will take a shot at formulating a simple lesson with a point that I haven’t seen anyone else make.
My explanation hinges on the words electra and volt which are used to talk about nuclear energy at both the macro and micro level. We all like to have electrons at our command, traveling through wires in our homes so we can stay warm or cool, fed and entertained. Everyone has to learn the voltage of the local current. At the macro level, uranium and plutonium fission and produce heat, which produces steam that turns a turbine to make electricity. Curiously, at the micro level, the energy of fission and radioactive decay is also described as electricity, measured as electron volts. Different isotopes have different numbers of electron volts that they emit with each decay, making some of them more dangerous than others.
To understand just how unusual and uncanny nuclear reactor fuel is, it is enough to simply marvel at how much heat one reactor can produce. Just one of the reactors at Fuku 1 produced enough heat to light up and heat up a suburb of Tokyo. All that potential energy inside one of those little boxes smaller than a Costco store! And after the meltdown and unplanned disconnection from the grid, there was no way to completely turn off the process of heat creation.
When a reactor core melts down and its energy is released into the environment, where does that energy go? Eventually it finds its way into living things, into people, and it continues to produce its electricity there just as it did in the reactor. It is mankind’s caged beast now on the loose and out of control.
Thus we can think of radiation as a slow motion, microscopic, internal electrocution. Radioactive atoms spread through the environment, and their alpha and beta radiation strikes cells, disfigures proteins and damages DNA. The cells and DNA can usually repair themselves, but if they can’t, cells can die and the organism can just carry on weaker that before and aging faster than it would have. Sometimes the cell doesn’t die and it reproduces as a cancerous mutation. There is nothing original in this description. The process is well known, but maybe it is useful and novel to describe the process as death in the slow cooker, a low-grade microscopic electrocution. It is electricity escaped from wires and grids and sent through the environment into your body. The less you get, the better.

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