Saturday, March 19, 2011

Nuclear Misinformation

All sorts of nonsense shows up in my inbox; the latest is the claim that there is a disaster underway for Americans because of fallout from Japan:
""Miniscule" amounts of radiation from the [] Nuclear Reactors have been detected in California.  Whatever that means, a "miniscule" amount of radiation can sicken or kill you.  One teaspoon of plutonium can poison every person in the world!
Most estimates are that the lethal dose of plutonium is 1/2 gram.  However, 26 men who worked on the Manhattan Project ended up with a much higher dose of plutonium--and have far exceeded normal lifespans.  The actual lethal dose is probably much higher than 1/2 gram.  Even using 1/2 gram as the lethal dose, for all six billion people, that would require three billion grams, or three million kilograms, or 30,000 metric tonnes.  I am quite sure that there is not 30,000 metric tonnes of plutonium on this planet.  It is certainly way more than a teaspoon of plutonium!

Plutonium is not the primary risk from these reactors, but I can say with great confidence that my survey meter gives me no reason to worry.  It continues to show a value just barely above zero--which is background radiation level.


  1. Ah, yes. The UPPU Club - the fraternity of grad students or post-docs whose job at Los Alamos was reclaiming all loose bits of plutonium.

    They were monitored for the rest of their lives. Their levels of plutonium contamination were measured with urine tests. They all produced detectible levels of plutonium (Pu) for as long as they lived. (Those who did not die in accidents all lived into their 70s, and some are still going.)
    Thus the name of the group.

  2. Interesting how that excerpt you quoted went from "miniscule" to "a teaspoon". Sleight of hand for slow readers? A teaspoon isn't miniscule to me.

  3. The email I was quoting claimed that a teaspoon of plutonium would kill everyone on Earth.

  4. Don't confuse us with the facts, Clayton. Everyone knows that the release of radiation in Japan will affect everything worldwide for years to come - negatively. Hysteria sells.

  5. Where IS that red-faced emoticon?

    How much did the UPPU club ingest?
    It might take more than a tsp to kill everyone on the planet, given their history.

  6. I believe the origin of that stupid claim is the idea that if you divided that teaspoon up evenly, stuck it in everyone's lungs (as if they'd breathed it in), and atomic decay caused a fatal cancer, it could do that.

    In the real world, of course, none of those steps would work, especially the first two.

    (The latter, sure, would have non-zero incidence, admittedly.

    All that chain mail proves is that the people re-sending it don't know anything about radiation, in practice.

    Unsurprising, of course.)

  7. (Also, as a technical aside, my impression is that most survey meters don't even detect alpha particles, and thus wouldn't be so good for detecting plutonium.

    You remain 100% right that plutonium from Fukushima is not remotely a concern even on the plant grounds.)