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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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