Radiation Explained: Chernobyl, Fukushima and …Bananas?

In 1986, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant endured the worst nuclear disaster in human history. The accident was caused by a flaw in the power plant reactor.  It was not the design flaw that caused widespread catastrophe though. It was the fuel inside the reactor that caused harm. Even the newer and much safer designs couldn’t prevent the outcomes of the 2011 tsunami in Japan. This natural disaster saw the Fukushima Power Plant destroyed, causing the evacuation of over 100,000 people. We know all too well that the use of nuclear fuel comes with extreme risks due to the fuel’s volatile nature.


Chernobyl is still classified as unsafe, over 30 years later. (Image taken by Ian Bancroft, Sourced from Flickr album: Chernobyl.)

What makes nuclear energy dangerous?

The saying goes that ‘with great power, comes great responsibility’.

All sources of power come with a level of risk. Fire burns, electricity shocks, but nuclear energy harnesses a reaction so powerful that it can destroy entire cities. In the recent Chernobyl mini-series by HBO, nuclear radiation was described to be like bullets. Bullets travel extremely quickly. They can pierce through objects with deadly force. Nuclear energy harnesses the power of atoms splitting. It is the energy released from this process is what makes nuclear radiation like a bullet. Unlike a bullet, radiation doesn’t puncture the skin. These atoms can be absorbed by the human body and cause something known as radiation sickness.


Radiation still seeps out of the ground at rates too high for humans to tolerate for long periods of time. (Image taken by Ian Bancroft, Sourced from Flickr album: Chernobyl.)

What does radiation sickness actually do to the body?

Harmless household items such as kitchen benches and bananas give off low levels of radiation. The human body is able to handle these small exposures without making you sick. Meanwhile, higher levels of radiation cause damage to the cells inside our bodies. A common example of this is sunburn. Sunburn occurs when we spend too much time in the sun. The sun naturally emits UV rays, which are a type of radiation. Mild radiation sickness can have similar symptoms to prolonged sun exposure. This includes burns, nausea and (in more extreme cases) cancer. Similar to the sun, radiation from nuclear power is most damaging when people have long, unprotected exposure to it.

How does nuclear power work?

Nuclear power uses an element called uranium. Like a lot of elements, there are several different kinds of uranium, each with a specific number of neutrons in each atom. These variations of an element are called isotopes. Most uranium that comes out of the ground is an isotope called Uranium-238. Uranium-238 isn’t very radioactive, so it can’t be used as fuel for nuclear power. The type of uranium used for nuclear power makes up under 1% of naturally occurring uranium in the world. This isotope is called Uranium-235. Naturally occurring uranium must undergo a process that increases the amount of Uranium-235, before it can be used in a Power Plant. Uranium-235 atoms can be split, which causes an immense amount of energy to be produced. The process is called fission, and it is this same process that makes atomic bombs so explosive.

 

Why do we use it as an energy source?

Nuclear power is popular because it produces a vast amount of power, so it is a reliable source of energy for large populations. Nuclear power also has zero direct carbon dioxide emissions.This makes nuclear power an effective energy option that may help to lessen the impacts of global warming.

 

To learn more about nuclear energy, click here.


2 Responses to “Radiation Explained: Chernobyl, Fukushima and …Bananas?”

  1. Kevin Kusnadi says:

    Well knowing that bananas can emit some radiation is not great, but also not terrible since it’s only low level! 😀

  2. Alastair Saunders says:

    You’ve got me scared of banana’s now!