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There is a lot of confusion about what radiation does or does not do.  

The body does not discriminate between radionuclides made by a reactor and radionuclides made naturally.  Plutonium once existed naturally on earth but because it decays rapidly, it no longer does.  However, early life evolved with plutonium in the picture.

We are exposed constantly to rays and particles from nature.  This chronic dose of radiation is higher in some parts of the world than others. Those places where it is higher, like Denver, or northeastern WA, do not show higher rates of cancer.

Because of fallout from atmospheric atomic bomb tests, everyone on earth probably has a very small amount of plutonium in their system.  

As for one speck of plutonium or any other radionuclide killing a person, this is bogus.  There are people walking around who, because of laboratory accidents with glove boxes, were exposed significantly to plutonium, which attaches to bone and is gradually excreted.  These accidents happened twenty to forty years ago, but the men are still alive and have successfully produced children and grandchildren.  No death in the US has ever been attributed to exposure to plutonium.

This does not mean plutonium is good for you.  It means it should be shielded and isolated, because it sheds alpha particles. Alphas can be stopped by a sheet of paper or by skin or by leaves or by grass.  They cannot travel very far. If they get into the lungs in large quantity they can be damaging.  Obviously,spent nuclear fuel is enclosed in thickly shielded containers when transported or put in long-term storage.  In spent fuel pools, where the fuel assemblies cool down, they are suspended in deep water that shields them.  All rays and particles from spent fuel can be stopped by concrete one foot thick, by dirt and rock.  In storing nuclear waste for the long term, the important thing is to immobilize it in ceramic and steel casks.  This is routinely done around the world.

However, radionuclides are heavy and do not migrate far even if they get into water.  Also, most of them tend to bind with clay in soil and that immobilizes them.

This is why the National Academy of Sciences recommends deep geological disposal.

Some of the antis have a very strange position.  They oppose Yucca Mountain and other repositories and they also oppose spent nuclear fuel being stored at nuclear plants.

Some perspective:
Burning organic matter releases radionuclides the vegetation has taken up from the soil.  So damage from radionuclides to the lungs can occur when someone smokes two packs a day of cigarettes year after year or when someone spends time next to a smoker or in a smoky pub. Two packs can expose a person to up to 8,000 millirem a year. This exceeds by far the permissible dose for a worker in the nuclear industry.
Average annual natural background:  300 millirem a year, mostly from radon.  
Average annual exposure from a nuclear power plant:  .083 to .009 millirem.  
Average annual exposure from a coal-fired plant:  1-4 millirem.  Waste from coal combustion contains U-235, radium, radon, toxic heavy metals like mercury, lead, and arsenic.  This waste is stored in the environment and in our bodies.  It is not controlled or shielded.  Fortunately the exposure is relatively low.
From natural gas in the home:  9 millirem.

It is very important to put degrees of exposure to radiation in context.  Alarmist websites take the position that all radiation is extremely dangerous and that a teaspoon of nuclear waste can kill hundreds of thousands of people.  This is simply untrue.  Fifty tons of nuclear waste were dispersed into the atmosphere as a result of the Chernobyl fire. Fifty people died.  The majority died from radiation poisoning as a result of fighting the fire in the reactor. They were heroes. They got a huge, direct dose.  Some people actually survived that dose, however.  The remaining deaths attributable to the accident were cases of thyroid cancer and were totally preventable deaths--but the USSR neglected to distribute potassium iodide to some of the exposed population.  It would have prevented the uptake of radioactive iodine from the reactor.

You can calculate how much exposure you are getting from natural and manmade sources by going to a university website (not an activist website or a uranium industry website):

http://www.oversight.state.id.us/radiation/radiation.htm

by Plan9 on Tue Oct 18th, 2005 at 11:11:58 AM EST
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Fifty tons of nuclear waste were dispersed into the atmosphere as a result of the Chernobyl fire. Fifty people died.

a further approx. 4,000 people are still expected to die as a result of Chernobyl.

I agree with you entirely that there is a lot of misunderstanding about the nature, toxicity etc. of nuclear 'products' at all stages of the cycle, and the alarmist sites irritate the shit out of me.

OTOH, we have done very little research that looks at modelling the environmental impacts of a large nuclear waste spill, for eg, and of course a reason for this has been a lot of cheerful suppression & lobbying by the nuclear industry.

This is rather like the debate over GM foods etc.; it's very difficult to honestly examine the issues, because the corporate lobbyists have the upper hand with thanks to governments in their pockets, it's very hard to get independent science, and many of the potential impacts have never been examined.

"This can't possibly get more disturbing!" - Willow

by myriad (imogenk at wildmail dot com) on Tue Oct 18th, 2005 at 05:02:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A great deal of computer modeling has been done about the effects of nuclear waste on the environment.  This was required by the EPA in order to license the only working deep geological repository in the US.

We know a great deal about what can happen under a variety of circumstances.

Bottom line:  probability of a nuclear waste spill in the US is extremely small.  The waste would have to get out of multiple and very heavy and very thick containers that are sealed in a variety of ways.

by Plan9 on Tue Oct 18th, 2005 at 05:12:21 PM EST
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When insurance companies refuse to insure nuclear power plants, or laws are passed by Congress limiting their liability in case of an accident, you know you have a problem.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Oct 18th, 2005 at 05:12:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The 4000 deaths that are estimated to occur in the future are based on how many millirem the most exposed population got.  These additional millirem are about the equivalent of someone moving from New York (natural background about 300 millirem) to northeastern Washington State (natural background:  1,700 millirem).  The exclusion zone of Chernobyl, though contaminated enough by reactor products to be more radioactive than it used to be prior to the accident. was a swamp with little natural uranium present and has now become about as radioactive as Spain or France already are naturally.

These are estimated deaths from cancers induced by radiation.  But the exposed population may not live long enough for the cancers to manifest.  This, sadly, is due to widespread psychological trauma from the accident and from being uprooted. It hasn't helped to have a corrupt and untrustworthy government. Depression, alcoholism, increased smoking, spousal abuse, all of that kind of suffering.  I am concerned that a similar state of affairs will occur among Katrina survivors.

See WHO, Chernobyl Forum 2005

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2005/pr38/en/

by Plan9 on Tue Oct 18th, 2005 at 11:36:54 PM EST
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You'll note that I said "die from Chernobyl", and didn't just cite cancer alone.

If you take a look at the report I linked to at the bottom of the thread, and the difficulties it describes in sorting out Chernobyl cancer deaths from background level cancer deaths, and the projections made using expsure / accumulation rates, you can see it says it could be as high as 24,000.

Of course, we are never really going to know, but as you point out, Chrenobyl's affects were much more widespread than just radiation poisoning etc.

Some 220,000 people had to be relocated, and huge areas still remain off-limits.

I see nuclear accidents as being rather similar to 1:100 or 1:1000 year floods - you have to build your risk analysis and mitigation strategies around them, and you have to assume that the 1 in 1000 or 100 year event could be next year.

Take a look also at the MIT research citing the rapidly escalating risk of a nuclear accident if the thousand or so more reactors are built, as has been suggested.

"This can't possibly get more disturbing!" - Willow

by myriad (imogenk at wildmail dot com) on Tue Oct 18th, 2005 at 11:56:34 PM EST
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