There’s a paradox when it comes to radioactive material and its portrayal to non-specialists; the fact that radiation is easily detected. The quantification of how radioactive a material is, at first glance, appears quite scary, particularly because it’s so unfamiliar to us. What the heck is a Bequerel or a Sievert after all? After Fukushima, the media was reporting how radioactive material from the reactors was detected off the coast of North America. Scary stuff! The activity was actually pretty low and harmless.[1] However, the fact that we can detect even these minute quantities of radioactive material, and even know where they’ve come from, actually makes it a huge deal safer. Hurray for radioactivity!

It’s worth remembering that many radioactive materials are chemically toxic too, like other heavy metals, you wouldn’t want to consume them. In a facility with chemical or biological hazards, whether it’s a factory producing solar panels or a research lab developing vaccines, the detection of these hazards would arguably be much more difficult than in a nuclear facility where we have sensors to detect the tell-tale signatures left by alpha, beta or gamma decay. In fact, radioactivity is so useful for detection that radioisotopes are commonly used by chemists and biologists to determine the mechanisms of chemical and biological processes.

DanCooper paradox1


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    Indeed radiophobia runs rampant in societies that don’t understand radiation. They don’t realize that radiation isn’t anything magical. The energy of radiation particles results in free radicals if such a particle interacts within an organism. So the result is no different from any other means by which free radicals are created. Yes free radicals can damage said organisms so how does an organism deal with free radicals. Well all organisms have evolved to deal with cellular damages, more complex ones with quite elaborate repair mechanisms. Of course if free radicals form too quickly, cellular damages could be permanent, Cells could die and here again more complex organisms have evolved to replace cells that fail with new cells. Free radical production rates have to be quite high for any damages to permanently damage complex organisms.

    In a phrase: It’s the dose rate that makes the poison.

    Also, getting back to the paradox you mention, people much to often forget that radiation is used to diagnose people and treat certain illnesses, in particular cancer. Radiation to kill cancerous while leaving surrounding tissue unaffected. Well actually not unaffected but with damage from radiation at sufficiently low levels that those healthy tissues are able to repair. So the paradox is that this fear is misplaced: that radiation can be beneficial as well. Again, the dose rate makes the poison.

    I highly recommend both books written by Wade Allison, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford : “Radiation and Reason” and his more recent “Radiation is for Life”. They should be required texts for college and university professors to read before teaching students how radiation needs to be treated with a little more respect and way less paranoia.

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