Nuclear Reactor And Nuclear Radiation – Misconception
Radiation isn’t magic death cooties. The threat from a given supply of radiation from a nuclear reactor depends on the kind of nuclear radiation, the quantity of nuclear radiation, the duration of exposure, and the nature of exposure. Earth is a planet awash in small amounts of radiation and was more radioactive in the past than it is today. We evolved here. We can take it.
Contrary to popular opinion and anti-nuclear propaganda, there is a roughly inverse relationship between the half-life of a radioactive substance and how dangerous it is. The easy way to think of it is, every radioactive substance has a certain amount of energy inside it, waiting to get out. If that energy is released all at once (like in a nuclear bomb), people get hurt. If it’s released over billions of years (like a block of uranium metal), millions of generations will come and go while it slowly decays. All will be exposed to a little nuclear radiation, but none will be harmed. And that happens in Nuclear Reactor Power Plant.
In-Depth Nuclear Reactor And Nuclear Radiation
Substances with short half-lives, like Actinium-228 (half-life of 6.15 hours), are intensely radioactive substance and can destroy chemical bonds, including living tissue, quickly. Substances with extremely long half-lives, like uranium-238 (the most abundant uranium isotope in nature, with a half-life of 4.5 billion years), are utterly harmless and a little nuclear radiation, at least unless you ingest them or perhaps live in a cave made of them—and then only because their decay can produce small amounts of more active daughter products (like radon gas).
In the middle, Plutonium-238 is radioactive enough to glow red hot, but produces a type of radiation that cannot even penetrate the outer dead layer of your skin, so Mark Watney in The Martian had nothing to fear from the radio-thermoelectric generator he dug up (as opposed to just being on Mars, which would cause a dangerous exposure over many months).
Nuclear reactor fuel, whether Uranium or Plutonium, is only weakly radioactive— because it has such a long half-life. Once the reactor is started, however, the neutrons produced start careening about, knocking atoms apart, breaking the fuel down into smaller, often less stable isotopes. The whole idea of a nuclear reactor is to create conditions that let the energy out millions of times faster than would otherwise happen so we can use it to boil water, drive turbines, and do our bidding. Though there is a little but harmless effect of nuclear radiation.
This is why it’s so dangerous to let some accident or disaster upset a running nuclear reactor. Once it’s running, the shortened and intensified radioactivity cannot just be turned off. SCRAMming a reactor shuts down the chain reaction in the primary fuel but leaves behind all the less stable daughter products or nuclear radiation in the middle of their decay.
But still, Nuclear Reactor has the danger of Nuclear Radiation
A freshly used nuclear reactor fuel assembly is still full of short-lived, intensely radioactive atoms. It will kill you to be around it and must be cooled for months to prevent overheating. Fortunately, ordinary water is both a good coolant and a good nuclear radiation shield.
After many months in the pool, an older fuel assembly can be moved to dry storage. It’s still radioactive has nuclear radiation but is hermetically sealed inside a stainless steel vessel, which in turn is placed in the concrete and steel cask designed to withstand everything from plane crashes to earthquakes.
Spent nuclear reactors contain a witch’s brew of different radionuclides, all with different half-lives. They will remain radioactive and radiate nuclear radiation for many centuries as, one after another, the more radioactive, shorter half-life isotopes peter out of existence, but they really aren’t particularly dangerous after the first few years. For example, when the corium “elephant’s foot” beneath the melted-down Chernobyl reactor was first visited by robot shortly after the accident, it was radioactive enough to kill a man standing nearby within minutes by nuclear radiation in the nuclear reactor plant. A few years later, it was safe enough to be briefly visited.
Today, most of the shorter half-life nuclides are nearly depleted, and the only reason it’s still dangerous to stay near is that there is so much material present. Standing near tons of weakly radioactive material is as dangerous as standing near a smaller amount of more radioactive material with nuclear radiation. But the nuclear reactor loading floor above the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, which was undamaged by the accident but abandoned due to environmental contamination shortly afterward.
This was a fully operational nuclear reactor at one time, but with the old fuel removed, a thorough cleaning, and a few decades’ time, it’s now perfectly safe to walk across — just don’t open a bed and breakfast.
Confusion, Misconception, and Mistake are everywhere in human history. Science is accurate and exact in detail. And the geniuses of science are working hard and helping to expand human knowledge. But sometimes even genius can be mistaken. To know a fact like that read The Most Mistaken Mathematical Paper Ever By Fourier.
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