Saturday, April 16, 2011

Gross Beta

What do John Wayne, Dick Powell, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead and Pedro Armendáriz all have in common?

If you were to answer that all participated in one of the worst movies ever made, you would be partially right. But the correct answer is radiation poisoning.

The movie in question, The Conqueror, finished production in 1956 and was produced by Howard Hughes. The movie was so bad it wasn't shown until many years later, in the 80s, on TV. It starred John Wayne as the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan and Susan Hayward as the Tartar princess Bortai.

John Wayne as Genghis Khan? Not a brilliant casting choice. This movie was doomed from the get-go.

Exterior scenes for The Conqueror were filmed in St. George, Utah, 137 miles downwind of the United State’s government’s Nevada Test Site where numerous above-ground nuclear detonations occurred, including, in 1953, Operation Upshot-Knothole, a series of eleven nuclear test shots. That’s a lot of radiated dirt. Hughs shipped 60 tons of that dirt back to Hollywood so that the color would match the scenes filmed in California.

Cast and crew for The Conqueror totaled 220 people. By 1981, 91 had developed some form of cancer, and 46 had already died of the disease. And while it’s true that Wayne and Moorehead were heavy smokers, these statistics are fairly alarming.

But what the hell is radiation? Isn’t it just a form of energy? How can energy make you sick? Would watching The Conqueror make you sick? Probably. But not from radioactive dirt.

Living tissue consists of different types of atoms united by chemical bonds. Healthy functioning of these atoms depends upon their composition and structure. Ionizing radiation (particles or electromagnetic waves energetic enough to detach electrons from atoms or molecules), interferes with that functioning. It alters chemical bonds. Composition and structure are disrupted. Black, ugly, gooey tumors form. DNA molecules are scrambled into crackling illegibility. Cell reproduction ceases. Mutations occur. Giant 50 foot tall women crush Hondas and Cadillacs. But most people just flat out get sick and die.

Intense radiation will cause burns. I saw the burns on the arms and legs of those brave men that entered the Fukushima plant to try to get the coolants going and the wires untangled.

The flight distance from Tokyo, Japan to Seattle, Washington is 4,792 miles. I wish I could double that. Triple it. Hell, I wish I could move to Mars.

Elevated amounts of radioactivity have been discovered in French and Massachusetts milk. We now live in world where distances cease to matter. Anyone who has dropped acid, eaten psilocybin mushrooms or peyote knows that everything in the universe is interconnected. This is especially true on our little blue and white planet. Not just cosmically true, scientifically true.

The day-to-day, minute-by-minute leakage occurring at the Fukushima nuclear power plants will affect all living creatures. Which is why I, and I’m sure thousands of other people, are all wondering the same thing: when the hell are those smarty-pants scientists going to stop it? And whose idea was it to build a nuclear power plant right next to the goddam ocean on one of the most geologically unstable countries of the planet?

Nor do I feel at rest hearing that General Electric built those plants.

This kind of anxiety is weird. Because you can’t see radiation. It’s not like the smoke and flames of an oncoming forest fire, or people hacking and coughing and sneezing because they’re down with a virus. A virus is invisible, too, but there are evident signs of it affecting the human body. Who knows what the cancer and leukemia and birth defect statistics are going to be ten years from now? How much more abbreviated will my life, or the life of my wife, or cat, or the neighbor upstairs be because TEPCO couldn’t get a handle on their nuclear catastrophe?

And how is it that a brilliant scientist capable of writing all those mystifying symbols on a blackboard or figuring out the fundaments of matter can go along with something as monumentally dumb as using nuclear fusion to boil water? Or build one of these plants on the frigging coast, like the ones in California, Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo and the San Onofre in San Diego, both aging, both smack dab next to the surf lapping the sand of numerous fault zones?

The mind boggles.

Lately, I have begun checking radiation levels just as I check the weather each day. I go to a special site developed by the Washington State Department of Health that has been daily monitoring gross beta levels in the air. They update the information each day at 3 p.m. They also assure worried people such as myself that there is no real health risk. “Several factors,” they say, “play a role in protecting us from the release of radiation occurring at the damaged reactors in Japan:”

Most of the radioactive material is contained at the damaged plants; there does not appear to have been any large release to the upper atmosphere. The trace amounts of radioactive material that have reached Washington are not in concentrations high enough to cause a health risk.

The fires and explosions at the Japanese reactors have not been as intense as the 1986 Chernobyl incident. Radioactive material ejected into the jet stream from Chernobyl reached Washington in small amounts. Even after the Chernobyl disaster, protective action was not needed in our state, and the Japan incident is much smaller than Chernobyl.

Even if radioactive material is released in Japan and reaches the jet stream in larger quantities, only very small amounts would be carried the 5,000 miles from Japan to our state. In the time it would take to cross the Pacific, the material would be diluted as it’s blown in the wind. Rain would also wash some of the material from the air into the ocean.

Radioactive decay, especially for short half-life radioactive materials such as iodine-131, would substantially reduce the amount of the radioactive material that could reach here.

For these reasons, it’s unlikely that we will see an increase in background levels of the normal radiation found in Washington. The small amounts of radiation that have reached us from Japan have been well below levels that would pose public health concerns.

This information is reassuring. And I wish I could believe it. But frankly, I don’t know what to believe anymore.

Today’s gross beta reading (radioactive decay emits beta particles) is 11.

I don’t know what that means. 11 doesn’t sound bad. Not that it would make any difference if it was 12, or 13, or 172.

It’s not like there’s anywhere else to go.


Mickey O'Connor said...

What I find reassuring in this disaster is that Seattle is almost 5,000 miles away from Japan. If we were 175 miles downwind, then odds are we'd all develop cancer. We're not, we're 5,000 miles away & I don't think we're going to get sick from this disaster. Tho when one of the reactors in California blows, well, then we got trouble. I read an article by Helen Caldicott who said that even if we have a Nuclear Power Plant that never cracks, never has a breakdown & after thirty years is shutdown merely because of old age, then STILL what is left is acres of swimming pools filled with radioactive waste products which remains dangerous for the next 500,000 years ! That's right for the next half of a million years the waste is radioactive & these swimming pools crack & leak after what , fifty years ? Then the waste leaks into the groundwater & into the food chain & into the DNA's of species & there has never been a favorable mutation from excessive radioactive exposure . Once you said to me the sun is a fission reactor & I said fusion tho it must be fission because I remember reading Buckminster Fuller once & he described how the sun is a huge nuclear reactor throwing massive amounts of heat & since it is 94 million miles away from earth, carbon based life forms are safe from the radiation.

John Olson said...

I said fusion. You said fission. You say fission. I say fusion. Let's call the whole thing off.

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, "the sun is a nuclear fusion reactor contained by gravity."

Thank you for your geographical assurances Mickey. Though you're right; as we've seen at Hanford, which shut donw some years ago, it's been leaking, as predicted, into the Columbia.