Getting A Grip On Radiation

Author: William Meiners

Like it or not, most nuclear engineers find themselves becoming spokespersons for the industry. Audeen Fentiman, professor of nuclear engineering and associate dean of graduate education and interdisciplinary programs, prefers to speak up on behalf of the technology. And she wants to set the record straight on radiation.

"Probably the biggest misconception about nuclear power is radiation," Fentiman says. "People do not realize that we are bombarded by radiation all day, every day."

Fentiman says of the background radiation that the average American is exposed to in any given year, a large percentage comes from self-elected medical procedures — the very X-rays, CAT scans and mammograms for which we pay insurance premiums to improve our health. Frequent fliers are exposed to more radiation than people who don't take to the skies. You'll get a bigger dosage living in mile-high Denver. You chomp down on it with the potassium in bananas. And all of us are taking in bits of it from outer space in the form of cosmic radiation.

Audeen Fentiman

Of the radiation intake (see pie chart), less than one-tenth of one percent comes from all the nuclear operations in the world. "That's an inconsequential amount," Fentiman says.

The National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement says the average annual radiation dose per person in the United States is 620 millirem (6.2 millisieverts). Fentiman says workers at a nuclear power plant are allowed up to 5,000 millirem per year. A lethal dose, however, is more like 500,000 millrem in a very short time period.

Can radiation exposure over time cause cancer? "Yes," Fentiman says, "as do so many other carcinogens in the environment."

As a spokesperson for the technology, Fentiman says the successes of nuclear power far outweigh the accidents. "It's a heavily regulated business and people in this industry do self-regulation over and above what the government does. The Institute for Nuclear Power Operations circulates information and shares best practices. It's important for their livelihood. So safety is the number one priority."

Ultimately, the challenge for the nuclear power industry may reside in education — both training the next generation of nuclear engineers and educating the public about the various facts and fictions of nuclear energy. Jere Jenkins, director of Purdue's radiation laboratory, the lone reactor in the state of Indiana, sees 1,600 to 1,800 visitors each year touring his lab.

"We are teaching people that radiation is something you have to respect," Jenkins says. "It's something that can help or hurt us, but you have to make sure that you know how to handle it."

For more than half a century, history has shown that radiation has been handled pretty well. The accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, which didn't take any lives, led to better operational procedures, Jenkins says. "It changed the way we do business."

The Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986, both deadly and significant, was more indicative of a difference in the way business was done in the Soviet Union than any crack in world-wide industry standards. "We don't have any plants in the U.S. like the one in Chernobyl because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission won't license that design," Jenkins says.

The political fallout from the March catastrophe in Japan may take some time to get sorted out, but Jenkins and his colleagues agree that the nuclear plants weathered the various storms rather well, given the disaster levels of the earthquake and tsunami.

Electricity sources that do not emit greenhouse gases during operation

Pie chart of electricity sources

Fentiman believes there are no nuclear plants in the United States positioned for the type of natural disaster that occurred in Japan. Because of the measures taken after 9/11, all have prepared for extremely severe scenarios. "I just wish everyone who had questions about nuclear energy could tour these power plants and see how they operate," Fentiman says. "Just imagine if everything else in our life was run as efficiently and at that level of excellence."

Admittedly biased by a technology she finds so compelling, Fentiman marvels at the potential of nuclear energy. "There are no emissions from nuclear plants," she says. "The volume of the used fuel from a nuclear power plant is small and about 95 percent of it can be recycled."

And with so many challenges surrounding a worldwide clamor for more energy, Fentiman is happy to continue spreading the word about the plus side of nuclear technology.