Follow Slashdot stories on Twitter


Forgot your password?

Journal mdsolar's Journal: Fossil Fuel Use Cuts Body's Internal Radiation Burden

Many discussions of nuclear power on slashdot are polluted by references to completely bogus calculations at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory web site that claim that coal power plants emit more radiation into the environment than nuclear power plants. This is completely bogus because when coal is burned, the uranium within it remains in the ash and its concentration is no greater than in typical low carbon soils. You might as well say that a bulldozer pushing clay soil around is releasing radiation into the environment. Why? Because the uranium in coal comes from the soil out of which the primaeval forest grew. When the coal is burned, you just get the soil components back. It always seemed curious that a national laboratory, even one so captured by the nuclear industry, would be yanking everyone's chain like that, making such preposterous claims. It could just be stupidity. But....

One thing about fossil fuels is that they have been isolated from the atmosphere for a very long time. That means that the carbon-14 produced by cosmic ray impacts with nitrogen nuclei in the atmosphere that they originally contained has pretty much decayed away. So, when fossil fuels are burned, carbon-14 in the atmosphere is diluted with respect to carbon-12 in the atmosphere. But that diluted mix is just where our food comes from, and since we are what we eat, we end up with less carbon-14 in our bodies. If we were to instantaneously double the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, the amount of carbon-14 in our bodies would go down by half. This would cut the beta decay rate from carbon-14 in our bodies by half and the combined beta decay rate from potasium-40 and carbon-14 by about 12%. If we subsequently removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to control the climate, carbon-14 would be removed together with carbon-12 and the internal radiation burden in our bodies would remain low for thousands of years as carbon-14 production would catch up on a timescale similar to the decay timescale for carbon-14 (5700 years).

Now, potasium-40 decays are more energetic than carbon-14 decays but carbon-14 in incorporated in DNA and thus decays may have a greater chance of inducing mutations, the apparent origin of cancers.

Nuclear power use, on the other hand, only increases radiation exposure, it does not decrease it. And it does so for long long after there has been any benefit from the power generation. While there are immediate cancer risks in the chemical components emitted from coal, gasoline or diesel burning, those risks are incurred by those benefiting from the fuel use and are not transmitted down the ages. The long term cancer legacy, in fact, is reduced cancer risk owing to reduced internal radiation burden.

A review of carbon-14's especially damaging roll in DNA may be found here .
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Fossil Fuel Use Cuts Body's Internal Radiation Burden

Comments Filter:

God helps them that themselves. -- Benjamin Franklin, "Poor Richard's Almanac"