Understanding Radiation

“The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained.” -David Bohm, a theoretical physicist of the 20th century

On February 23, 1941, American chemist Glenn T. Seaborg and his colleagues identified plutonium as a new element at the University of California, Berkeley. However, in 1986, near the end of the Anti-Nuclear Movement, the City of Berkeley passed The Nuclear Free Berkeley Act. The bill’s purpose was to prohibit nuclear reactors and business with any corporation associated with the nuclear energy industry, and it presented direct opposition to the nuclear fuel cycle as a whole. Now, three decades later, The Nuclear Free Berkeley Act has made it increasingly difficult to do business in the city and also prevents Berkeley from buying federal Treasury bonds. According to a Huffington Post article published in 2011, “The law has far-reaching consequences: For example, city employees need special City Council permission – which isn’t always granted – to buy police radios, library scanners, computer software and other items manufactured by companies with ties to the nuclear industry.” The Nuclear Free Berkeley Act is just one example of the effects that the Cold War had on the United States. Since the Cold War, the concept of radiation has intimidated the nation, and people have become more wary of its potentially harmful impacts.

As American citizens and voters, we could start by understanding radiation in order to be truly and fully informed on nuclear policy. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission defines radiation as “energy in motion, in the form of waves or streams of particles.” Radiation is often associated with atomic energy, but it takes many different forms that are categorized into two types: ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation. Non-ionizing radiation consists of lower frequency electromagnetic waves like microwaves and radio waves that don’t harm the human body. Ionizing radiation consists of higher frequency electromagnetic waves like x-rays and gamma rays that knock electrons off of atoms, potentially damaging cells. Ionizing radiation is harmful and can be measured by millirems. According to the United Nations Scientific Commitee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), there are four major sources of ionizing radiation: cosmic radiation, terrestrial radiation, inhalation, and ingestion. Cosmic radiation is high energy radiation that comes mainly from outside the solar system. Terrestrial radiation comes from natural deposits in the earth’s crust of uranium, potassium, and thorium. Inhalation of radiation comes from natural radioactive materials found in the soil and bedrock, most often in the form of radon and thoron. Ingesting radiation occurs when vegetables are cultivated in naturally radioactive soil, which results in internal exposure to radiation. Together, these four sources of radiation contribute to natural background radiation- a constant source of ionizing radiation that is ever present in the environment.

The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) sets the radiation limit for humans at 500 millirem per year. The NRC is limited to regulating man made radioactive exposure and establishing standards for protection from ionizing radiation. To put this in perspective, worldwide natural background radiation averages from 240 millirem to 310 millirem per person annually, which is well below the radiation limit that the NRC sets.

In 1991, people were becoming increasingly concerned over the rise of leukemia and lymphoma in people living near nuclear installations. Researchers conducted a mortality survey for populations living near nuclear facilities in the United States. This study found that the exposure to radiation from the nuclear facilities was less than 3 millirem per year, a number far too small to result in any damage to the bodies of those who lived nearby. Although this study was conducted in the 1990s and the technologies that were used may not be as accurate as the technologies available today, it still holds true that nuclear facilities do not produce lethal amounts of radiation.

High radiation doses (greater than 50,000 millirem) kill cells and can result in irreparable damage to tissues and organs. Doses like this can result in either the contraction of Acute Radiation Sickness or in extreme genetic mutations, which can lead to still births, hereditary defects, or cancer.

With this information, I hope that our community will be more informed on the topic of radiation and that individuals will be able to understand its effects on society and on themselves.


To discover more on natural background radiation: http://nuclearsafety.gc.ca/eng/resources/fact-sheets/natural-background-radiation.cfm

To find out more about the 1991 study: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1999880 or https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/publications/magazines/bulletin/bull33-2/33205892027.pdf

To read more about NRC regulations: http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/bio-effects-radiation.html

Editor: Rachel Levy

Jessica Chow

Jessica Chow is from Plantation, Florida and is currently a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley. She is joint majoring in mechanical and nuclear engineering and hopes to pursue a career in the energy industry. In her free time she enjoys dancing, traveling, and listening to music.

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