How much radiation are you exposed to on a plane?

By Maggie Koerth-Baker at 6:45 am Thu, Oct 20, 2011

Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, you've probably heard me and other people talk about the radiation exposure we experience in everyday life. All humans, throughout history, have been exposed to background radiation produced constantly by the natural environment. Then there's added exposures from modern sources: X-rays and medical scans, living near power plants (both coal and nuclear, and the coal is actually worse), and flying in airplanes.

That last source of exposure works because the higher you get, the less you can rely upon Earth's atmosphere to shield you from radiation in space. It's the same reason why there's an increase in radiation exposure associated with climbing a mountain. All of these exposures are small. Small enough that most people don't need to worry about them. (For instance, a pregnant woman can safely take an airplane trip. You'd have to be a pregnant flight attendant, regularly working long-haul flights, before the exposures would start adding up to a quantifiable risk.)

But because we use these small-dose numbers to talk about relative risk and when radiation should and shouldn't scare us, it's interesting to know where they're coming from ... and how accurate they are. That's why I was interested in something weird noticed by Ellen McManis. She operates a research nuclear reactor at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and like many of us, she's curious about how much radiation people are actually being exposed to as a part of everyday life. Unlike us, however, McManis actually has access to things like dosimeters. With the help of her colleague, Reuven Lazarus, she recently took one on a cross-country plane flight—from Portland to DC, with a layover in Chicago. To her surprise, she found that the dose her dosimeter registered was actually a lot lower than the dose she'd been expecting.

I was using a RADOS RAD-60 dosimeter, which gives you an instant reading of how much radiation you've been exposed to while the dosimeter is on. We use them for visitors and people who don't have their own permanent dosimetry yet. Over the course of ~5 hours on the plane, I got a total of 0.3 millirem (or 3 microsieverts). I usually see a number quoted of 1 millirem per hour [for airplane exposure], or 3-to-5 millirem per cross-country flight, so that's an order of magnitude lower than expected.

Now that is interesting. If you look at Randall Munroe's Radiation Dose Chart (my favorite source for putting these small doses into context), you'll see that his well-researched numbers estimate an exposure of 40 microsieverts (the same thing as 4 millirem) for one cross-country plane flight. McManis' real-life reading was definitely a lot lower than the go-to estimate.

But why?

The truth is that McManis didn't really know. Her dosimeter was recently calibrated. She also checked it against a known source of radiation in the lab, and had turned up a result that was completely normal, so it seemed like this wasn't an issue of a wonky dosimeter.

Luckily, off-duty nuclear scientists aren't the only people taking measurements of in-flight radiation exposures. The official estimates, the ones used by people like Randall Munroe, come from an organization called the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety.

Back in 1996, the European Union started counting radiation exposure on board airplanes as an occupational safety hazard. Remember, travelers generally don't have anything to worry about. But, for people who work on airplanes, the risk is large enough to be worth paying attention to, especially on certain routes. EU-based air crews are limited to 100 millisieverts of exposure every 5 years, and 50 millisieverts in any given year*.

How do they track that? You could, theoretically, give a personal dosimeter to every person working onboard an airplane. But that gets expensive, for reasons we'll talk about later. Instead, the EU has chosen to manage this with a system based on computer models—models that have been verified against more than 10,000 hours worth of real-world dosimeter readings.

It's called the Sievert System, and it works because the sources of radiation at 30,000 feet are fairly constant. Subatomic particles come from the Sun and from deep space to bombard our atmosphere. Reactions between those particles and our atmosphere produce secondary particles. Those secondary particles penetrate airplanes, and our skin, where they can damage our DNA.

There are factors that can alter the dose. Solar activity, for instance, means an increase in subatomic particles striking the atmosphere. Altitude matters, because the higher you are, the less atmosphere there is to protect you. Finally, latitude is also important. The particles penetrate our atmosphere more easily at the poles, says Jean-François Bottollier-Depois, head of the External Dosimetry Department at the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety. By the time you get to 60 degrees latitude, he says, you will be experiencing a dose 2x as high as that at the equator. (Again, remembering that we're talking about very small doses.)

But these are all issues that can be factored into a computer model. All you need to know is the routes a pilot or crew member will fly in a given month, and the level of solar activity. The Sievert System uses that information to calculate monthly exposures for individuals.

Bottollier-Depois says the System also checks its work. Back in the early 90s, his team tracked the doses received by cosmonauts aboard Mir, so they know what the dose is in space. Earthside, they sent dosimeters on numerous flights, choosing a variety of routes, and taking measurements in different locations on the planes. They also used multiple dosimeters on each flight, so they could be sure that the dose recorded was accurate. And they still do these practical tests today, updating the Sievert System database to account for long-term changes in solar activity.

With all that experience under his belt, Bottollier-Depois had a pretty good idea of why Ellen McManis' measurements came out so wrong. In fact, it has to do with why the EU chose a model-based system, rather than real-time, individual dosimetry. All dosimeters are not created equal.

"If you use a classical dosimeter, it is measuring photons and electrons, but those account for less than 40% of the total dose aboard aircraft," he says. "The difference comes from the fact that you have other particles like neutrons, and those represent most of what you receive in a dose aboard an airplane. They can't be detected with classical dosimeter. You need very specific technology for that."

Expensive, specialized dosimeters pick up the particles that are most common at flight altitudes. Normal, old dosimeters don't. To McManis, that difference makes a lot of sense.

"I was using a personal alarm dosimeter that relies on ionizations to work, and neutrons don't ionize things," she says.

For more information, check out these links:

French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety — How far advanced is research on the health effects of low doses?

Sievert System page — You can calculate your own flight exposures here, and learn more about how the system works. (Heads up: In my experience, the site is often not working. If it won't load, check back in a couple days.)

*This story, as originally written, contained a typo. Pilots and airline crew are not limited to 100 microsieverts of exposure every 5 years, but 100 millisieverts. That's a big difference and it led to some confusion. My apologies. Thank you to Zac Labby for bringing this problem to my attention.

Image: airplane, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from freakland's photostream

Published 6:45 am Thu, Oct 20, 2011

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.

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45 Responses to “How much radiation are you exposed to on a plane?”

  1. brillow says:

    I figured that conclusion immediately, I used to work with 35S, and its low-energy beta isn’t detectable with a conventional dosimeter.

  2. flowergardenslayer says:

    So the difference results in 40% lower, but she had an order of magnitude difference?  Seems like the numbers don’t add up.  For the numbers to be correct, it seems like she should have gotten 1.5 at the low end, not the 0.3 she reported.

    • Jerril says:

      Your math is backwards. The electrons and photons are 40% of the dose, so just measuring them gets you a result that is 60% lower, not 40% lower – that’s still not enough to cover the entire difference, but it’s still important as it brings things closer to the expected number.

  3. Aknaton says:

    Silly, idle question: do neutrons ionize things just a teeny, tiny bit thanks to their nonzero magnetic moment?

    • I don’t know for sure but one would think that the increments are so small that the effect is impossible to sort out from the much greater ionization potential of photons and electrons.

    • Thomas Shaddack says:

      Neutrons can ionize things by several mechanisms. For example a collision with another particle that gets ionized by the impact (and cause further ionizations by impacting other particles), or being absorbed in a nucleus, rendering it radioactive (and possibly causing further ionizations by collisions and by the gamma photon typically emitted after the nucleus swallows the neutron), and then emitting ionizing radiation conventionally when the new nuclide decays.

  4. charonme says:

    I don’t understand this. People worry about these risks and write articles about them, but smoking a pack a day gives you many times the amount of radiation of all of the mentioned sources together, but articles about tobacco radiation are much less popular…

  5. dculberson says:

    I thought non-ionizing radiation was less dangerous.  Is that not true?  If it is true, then shouldn’t the limits be separated out?  (especially if 40% of the radiation is non-ionizing.)  I might be completely wrong on this count, though.

    Also, doesn’t 50 microsieverts a year seem impossibly low for an air crew?  If a single cross-country flight would result in 40 microsieverts then you would have to secure a different pilot for every single leg of every long flight, every year.  You would need thousands upon thousands of pilots just to fill a single busy flight’s schedule!

    • s2redux says:

      doesn’t 50 microsieverts a year seem impossibly low for an air crew?

      P’bly just a typo or magnitude miscalculation; “micro” subbed for “milli”. For instance, the FAA’s recommended max annual dose is 50 millisieverts.

  6. emjb says:

    You know, pilots can be pregnant too….I wonder what the radiation exposure is for sitting in the cockpit vs. the rest of the plane?

  7. Ellen McManis says:

    @boingboing-215a71a12769b056c3c32e7299f1c5ed:disqus : True, with the exception of neutrons. Neutrons can make other atoms radioactive (the neutron collides with a nucleus, which becomes unstable). Said other atoms then produce ionizing radiation.  How bad neutrons are for you depends highly on their energy.

    This doesn’t work at all reliably in the space of a dosimeter, though, and so meters designed to pick up neutrons have to have some kind of exceptionally neutron-absorbent material (for example, boron) to work. There do exist neutron dosimeters, which have taken similar steps, although I have no idea how they work. For example you can get a small badge that looks like my permanent dosimetry that picks neutrons up, but it doesn’t come standard or cheap.

  8. felix says:

    One important point that I always wonder about when I read about radiation exposure is the difference between exposure to radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, x-rays, etc.), and exposure to radioactive compounds that may be ingested and stay in your body for a long time.

    I think (maybe someone can clarify this) that the threshold levels for radiation are so low because you can have a very low exposure to radiation while having quite a lot of radioactive compounds around (on the ground, in the food, in the air, etc.). E.g. alpha radiation won’t even go through your clothes or skin, so the danger of exposure is quite low. However, if you swallow alpha-emitting dust, you have constant exposure within your body for the rest of your life.

    So when comparing radiation, say, during an x-ray, during a 5h flight, and 5h at Fukushima, and they all say 40 microsieverts, I would be far more worried about being at Fukushima, as the level of radiation probably means there’s a lot of radioactive dust around that I breathe in. The airplane or x-ray exposure stops the moment I leave – ingested particles stay with me, damaging cells for decades.

    Does anyone know what the standard methods are for distinguishing between direct radiation exposure, and ingested particles?

    •  Felix, you make an excellent point about radiation versus radioactive material.  Id be much less worried about spending a little time around a strong radiation source that I would be spending a day in an area contaminated by radioactive dust that emits very low background radiation. I’d rather not get that dust into my body.

      So far the only news source I listen to that makes a consistent distinction between radiation and radioactive material when discussing the incident in Japan has been Al jazeera.  Most other networks just say “radiation” AJ, always says “release of radioactive material.

    • Thomas Shaddack says:

      There are significant differences between radioisotopes. Strontium is a bone-seeker as its chemistry is similar to calcium, so it tends to stay in organism for long time. Caesium is similar to potassium, does not significantly accumulate (perhaps a bit in muscles), and its biological half-life (the time needed to excrete half of its content in body) is couple weeks to few months. Iodine is accumulated in thyroid gland; hence the iodine tablets against radiation – but these work only when the contamination is caused by fission products, and when they are taken a while before (or at least not long after) exposition; the radioiodine is then diluted and its intake by the organism is reduced. So not all internal contamination is equal.

      Dose from internal contamination is typically calculated from the mean path of the emitted radiation (if a photon or electron gets out of the body, only the part of its path that was inside can be counted to the exposition), the half-life of the isotope, its biological half-life (which depends a lot on the form of exposure), and so.

      The form of the particles ingested (or inhaled) also significantly alters the possible dose. A grain of a material insoluble in acids (stomach), mild alkalis (duodenum), and water will pass through the alimentary channel without being absorbed, so the dose can be counted only from its residence time in such. If the material is soluble, it gets worse a bit. Inhaled particles can be either dissolved and absorbed via lungs, lodged in the lung tissue, or expelled and coughed out. 

      • jacobian says:

         ” Iodine is accumulated in thyroid gland; hence the iodine tablets
        against radiation – but these work only when the contamination is caused
        by fission products, and when they are taken a while before (or at
        least not long after) exposition”

        I believe that it’s also possible to give a mega-dose of iodine nearly completely destroying the thyroid in order to deal with the cancer threat after exposure.

    • Ellen McManis says:

      It’s possible to convert internal exposures to sieverts using various models of how the internal radiation affects the body. You simply take the nuclides and the method of intake and multiply by a conversion factor. For one such list of conversion factors, check out the EPA’s PDF here: http://www.epa.gov/rpdweb00/docs/federal/520-1-88-020.pdf 

      These models take into account the radiological and biological half-life of the substance to figure out how much it will affect you over time, and factor all that into the dose in sieverts. Once converted, 40 µSv should be 40 µSv no matter the source. There are similar weighting factors for dose received to an individual organ, giving you whole-body doses which can be compared to other whole-body doses.

      I have no idea if any given news article has done the research — a lot of them are pretty bad. But I hope that helps.

  9. Dewi Morgan says:

    Person using the wrong type of radiation detector, in equatorial locations, during a period of low solar activity, gets lower dose than the international rule of thumb quoted by laymen! Film at eleven!

    • Dewi, the cool thing about writing for BoingBoing is that I can do a story on something that isn’t breaking news, but is interesting and hopefully answers some questions about how we measure everyday radiation exposure. 

      There’s a lot more going on in the world than what fits with the “film at 11″ paradigm.

      • teapot says:

        I, for one, learned many things from yet another of your excellent posts. It’s parts like this that makes your science journalism more engaging and easily understandable than others.

        Subatomic particles come from the Sun and from deep space to bombard our atmosphere. Reactions between those particles and our atmosphere produce secondary particles. Those secondary particles penetrate airplanes, and our skin, where they can damage our DNA.

        Even though this is a very accurate and succinct way of describing the process from source to effect, it also makes taking a plane sound like a tiny invisible space battle. That is what makes science awesome.. It’s mind-bendingly amazing and real.

  10. James Hardy says:

    Question: is there less radiation when flying at night (i.e. with the planet earth between you and the sun) than during the day, or does the radiation bend round the earth (presumably due to the magnetic field or something)?

  11. Akula971 says:

    Well the world is a awash with increased radiation, all those bomb tests did nothing to help. It is no wonder that the remains of the german fleet at scapa flow, is still used for “Low Background Steel”. It is not contaminated with radionuclides. It is truly shameful what man has done to this planet.

  12. Nagurski says:

    The worst thing is my foil suit always gets wrecked when they make me take it off to go through security.

  13. Reed Millar says:

    How does the radiation of the flight compare to the nudity security scanner?

    • Charles B says:

      I’d like to see the answer to this as well. How much radiation exposure do we get from the full body scanners sold to the TSA as safe? More interesting to me, how much of a dose does a TSA employee get from standing next to the open ends of the silly thing while passenger after passenger gets scanned? The only answer I’ve seen to either question is the scanner company says its safe for the passengers. 

  14. Jay Kusnetz says:

    UMass Amherst Researcher Points to Suppression of Evidence on Radiation Effects by 1946 Nobel Laureate
    http://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/newsreleases/articles/136706.php
    from the press release:
    “University of Massachusetts Amherst environmental toxicologist Edward Calabrese, whose career research shows that low doses of some chemicals and radiation are benign or even helpful, says he has uncovered evidence that one of the fathers of radiation genetics, Nobel Prize winner Hermann Muller, knowingly lied when he claimed in 1946 that there is no safe level of radiation exposure…..” “Calabrese adds, “This isn’t an academic debate, it’s really practical, because all of our rules about chemical and low-level radiation are based on the premises that Muller and the National Academy of Sciences’ (NAS) committee adopted at that time. Now, after all these years, it’s very hard when people have been frightened to death by this dogma to persuade them that we don’t need to be scared by certain low-dose exposures.”

    IMHO we need to fund some major studies, using tens of thousands of rats, not just a couple hundred. Perhaps combine it with testing for effects of EMR. Designing the facility would make a great architectural student’s thesis; an environment to raise 10K rats with no radiation, no EM, natural enough to not stress the rats from boredom, and no materials that could outgass or leech into their food/bedding etc.

  15. chaopoiesis says:

    I would just like to take this opportunity  to say that science is wonderful!

  16. Charlie B says:

    Then there’s added exposures from modern sources: X-rays and medical scans, living near power plants (both coal and nuclear, and the coal is actually worse), and flying in airplanes.

    The children of Chernobyl beg to differ.   Soon the children of Fukushima might have something to say, too.

    Some folks claim that if we were to replace all our sources of electricity with nuclear plants, at the current rate of failure we’d be experiencing over 5,000 deaths per year from nuclear accidents.  I have not checked the math, but I find the hypothesis much more credible than the standard “you greens won’t let us build the safe plants” nuclear shill talking points.

    • Thomas Shaddack says:

      There are two important distinctions. Chernobyl RBMK1000 reactor was a flawed design and the flaws were known. Fukushima reactors were from 70′s. More modern reactors are built to withstand wider range of mishaps, but the old reactors are not replaced with the newer ones as the people are worried about safety – so because they are worried, they have less safe plants.

      The deaths have to be compared with deaths associated with other power sources – from coal mining accidents to issues with hydropower dams to deaths by falling from a roof when installing a solar panel. I have a feeling that if this would be calculated as deaths per terawatt-hour, nuclear would still come out fairly well off in comparison with the rest.

      • Charlie B says:

        There are two important distinctions. Chernobyl RBMK1000 reactor was a flawed design and the flaws were known.

        A valid objection.  Of course, all the currently operating reactors also have known flaws.  Only the science-fiction thorium reactors have no known flaws, because they don’t actually exist.   Still, the Chernobyl design sucked egregiously, far more than anything currently running.

        Fukushima reactors were from 70′s. More modern reactors are built to withstand wider range of mishaps, but the old reactors are not replaced with the newer ones as the people are worried about safety – so because they are worried, they have less safe plants.

        No, I’m sorry to be rude, but that is complete and utter bullshit.

        When federal regulatory agencies continually re-license poorly designed nuclear plants well past their original, scheduled end-of-lifetime, that isn’t a response to concerns about safety, it’s simply a callous disregard for the value of human lives and
        property.

        Aging reactors are not being replaced, and will be run until they fail catastrophically, because that is the way the economics of nuclear power are currently structured.  They are guaranteed to fail because that is the trajectory that the Bush and Reagan governments built and the Obama government is continuing to follow.  The corporations that own them have no plans to ever decommission them, as shown by the government audits that reveal most of the owners aren’t even pretending to set aside the funds required to do so.  They aren’t being prosecuted for this failure to meet their legal obligations – so why should they bother to follow the law?

        The deaths have to be compared with deaths associated with other power sources – from coal mining accidents to issues with hydropower dams to deaths by falling from a roof when installing a solar panel. I have a feeling that if this would be calculated as deaths per terawatt-hour, nuclear would still come out fairly well off in comparison with the rest.

        Even if the accidental deaths per terawatt-hour for nuclear are small compared to other energy sources, that does not compensate for the lasting environmental degradation from even one Chernobyl or Fukushima.  You can’t honestly compare solar installers falling off roofs with a hundred years worth of increased cancer rates and conclude that solar power is just as dangerous.  That’s just lame.

        [edited to remove spurious line feeds introduced by disqus]

        • Antinous / Moderator says:

          [edited to remove spurious line feeds introduced by disqus]

          Don’t even get me started. If you quoted a quote, it would probably show up as a vertical line of single letters.

        • jacobian says:
          When federal regulatory agencies continually re-license poorly designed nuclear plants well past their original, scheduled end-of-lifetime, that isn’t a response to concerns about safety, it’s simply a callous disregard for the value of human lives and property.

          I believe Shaddack’s original point was that resistance to nuclear power options has ensured that new designs are not rolled out, ironically reducing the safety of nuclear power.

          I don’t see anything in your response which identifies that as being “bullshit”. 

          You can’t honestly compare solar installers falling off roofs with a hundred years worth of increased cancer rates and conclude that solar power is just as dangerous.  That’s just lame.

          Yeah, actually you can.  If you look at the total number of expected deaths they are quite comparable.  I’m not sure why falling off a roof should get some special treatment as opposed to death by radiation.  It smacks of irrational radiation paranoia.

          The threat from isotopes such as Cs-137 and I-131 is long term, but the threat is restricted to centuries, not millenia as those opposed to nuclear often contend.  In addition, radiation, unlike many other modern toxic externalities of production, is very easy to detect, meaning that mitigative efforts are much more likely to be successful.

          I expect that due to the limited land in Japan (bio)remediation efforts will be demonstrated in concerted way for the first time.  We will be able to get much better understandings of how we might work with nuclear catastrophes.

          I tend to think that LWR are not particularly good designs, even in their more modern designs which emphasise passive  safety.  That doesn’t mean we should abandon nuclear power, it simply means we should turn our eye towards what might work better.

          Nuclear power is not just our best long term bet for power, it’s also our best bet for extra-terrestrial exploration and settlement.  Taking the long view, a civilisation that does not learn to harness nuclear power will be permanently stunted.

          • Beeg Jeem says:

            I think you ought to look closely at the Chart of the Nuclides, and especially review the half-life for Cs-137 and I-131. I know you really didn’t mean “centuries” when you said “The threat from isotopes such as Cs-137 and I-131 is long term, but the threat is restricted to centuries, not millenia as those opposed to nuclear often contend. ” did you? I-131 half-life is 8.02 days, while Cs-137 has a half-life of 30.07 years. The I-131 is completely gone in 80 days (if you use ten half lives as a standard) and the Cs-137 in 80 years. Hardly centuries. But there are other fission products which have much higher half-lives. Check out http://www.hps.org for more information.

          • Charlie B says:

            I believe Shaddack’s original point was that resistance to nuclear power options has ensured that new designs are not rolled out, ironically reducing the safety of nuclear power.  I don’t see anything in your response which identifies that as being “bullshit”. 

            Well then let me try again.  Perhaps one of us has a poor command of written English.

            The safety of terrestrial nuclear fission plants in the US is negatively affected by:

            1) Bad design.  We didn’t know as much as we know now when these systems were designed, so there are flaws.  None of these flaws are due to “resistance to nuclear options”.

            2) Cost containment.  Terrestrial fission plants are not economically viable without government sponsorship, yet the GE boiling water reactor’s poor design is strongly related to their goal of “the cheapest possible reactor”.  You can look at the marketing material for these reactors and see that they were explicitly sold as having the thinnest pressure vessel permitted by regulatory agencies.  They are designed to be cheap and to wear out and then be decomisssioned.  This is not due to “resistance to nuclear options”.

            3) The Bush administrations’s relicensing of old reactors (that are known to have serious design flaws) well past their designed decommissioning dates.  This relicensing was not caused by “resistance to nuclear options”.  During the Clinton administration, these same plants were refused relicensing specifically due to “resistance to nuclear options”.  (Public safety and good science never entered into either set of decisions, in my opinion.)

            4) Pseudo-conservative ideology from political parties.  Running old obsolete plants to destruction, and building plants that use old technology, does not drive labor costs up or disrupt entrenched power relationships the same way that investing in new technologies (like switchgrass biofuels or whatever) does.  Appropriate levels of investment would also require appropriate taxation, which is again outside the ideology of political puppetmasters.  STILL no relationship to “resistance to nuclear options”.

            The “green environuts have made nukes unsafe” meme is a lie that depends on the acceptance of this unstated premise:  If everyone had held hands and sang together “we love nuclear power, we trust America’s corporations, the government can do no wrong” then somehow all the aging, unsafe reactors would have magically transformed themselves into glittering, thorium-fueled engines of pure and safe goodness.  This is, as I said, utter bullshit.  As far as I can determine, no corporation or government has ever become more responsible due to lack of oversight and involvement by the public.

            Here in reality, nuclear fission plant research is ongoing.  And there are no chanting mobs of demonstrators insisting that all future plants must be built to old, unsafe designs.  The decision to build new plants on old designs is based on cost.  The decision to continue to run obsolete plants is due to a willingness to have them fail, or an unwillingness to believe in basic human nature.  “Resistance to nuclear options” has exactly ZERO negative effect on nuclear safety – although California protestors can point to at least one instance where public resistance prevented a nuclear plant from being built to an old design.

            You can claim that because “all fish live in the sea” and “all salmon are fish” then therefore “if I buy kippers it will not rain on Monday” but there is, in reality, no connection between these things.  Public resistance to nukes has not caused our problems.

            [edited because disqus is an enemy of coherent discourse]

      • Entrope says:

        There are two important distinctions. Chernobyl RBMK1000 reactor was a flawed design and the flaws were known. Fukushima reactors were from 70′s.

        I’m not sure what your two important distinctions are, but one should be that the proximate cause of the Chernobyl disaster was electrical engineers (with little or no knowledge of nuclear physics) who performed an unauthorized experiment — and to do so they disabled basically all of the safety interlocks, ignored the plant’s safety protocols, broke their own test protocol by rushing it, and did not pay attention to operators who thought the procedure was dangerous.  Their experiment would probably not have led to disaster if the RBMK design had just some of the robustness features that US nuclear plants were required to have.  (PBS has more details here).

    • jacobian says:

      5000 deaths per year is not an extraordinary amount compared to the deaths we see from fossil fuel sources, even if this number is not an exaggeration. Some estimates put current coal pollution deaths at around 30,000 per year.  And that’s not counting global warming as a potentially enormous harmful impact.

    • teapot says:

      Time for the charts again…

      http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_VyTCyizqrHs/R9rF7NuGzXI/AAAAAAAAAPw/KcnCX7ly6gw/s1600/deathTWH.JPG
      http://sethgodin.typepad.com/.a/6a00d83451b31569e20147e3645469970b-450wi

      data here:
      http://www-958.ibm.com/software/data/cognos/manyeyes/visualizations/2e5d4dcc4fb511e0ae0c000255111976/comments/2e70ae944fb511e0ae0c000255111976

      It should also be noted that the *real* reason Fukushima went ka-boom is because the geniuses who designed the place thought it would be an awesome idea to install the backup generators beneath the level of the top of the seawall. Had they placed them on the hills behind the plant, or on top of plant buildings it might have been a three-mile island-scale incident instead (or we may have never even had the displeasure of hearing newsreaders butcher the pronunciation of ‘Fukushima’).

      • Charlie B says:

        There are no valid numbers for Chernobyl’s effects on humans.  Partly because (like Fukushima) they aren’t over yet, but also because of purposeful destruction of data during the fall of the Soviet Union.  The number you’ve used from IBM is probably absurdly low, but at this time can’t really be known.

        Your last paragraph, though, perfectly illustrates why terrestrial nuclear power is fundamentally a bad idea. 

        It’s not because it’s impossible to safely split an atom and harvest the energy.

        It’s because human beings are the way we are – even before we had nuclear plants to target, we were willing to annihilate entire cities full of people with nuclear weapons.  Do you think there are no nations willing to target nuclear plants?  How about criminal or terrorist organizations?  Do you think corporations that are rewarded for limiting costs can be trusted to build and maintain plants optimally?  The lesson of TMI 1979, Tschernobyl 1986, and Fukushima 2011 is that humans will cut corners, cut costs, trade good performance reviews for blow jobs, cut training, perform unsafe and unauthorized experiments, and generally act in ways incompatible with the best interests of humanity.

        We don’t need nuclear-produced energy as much as we need land that is uncontaminated by nuclear accidents, so setting ourselves up to fail is stupid.  Invest in 21st century carbon-neutral biofuels instead of obsolete 1940s crap!

        This is far off the “how much radiation are you exposed to on a plane” topic, so I will stop here.  My views do not require more explanation – terrestrial nuclear fission plants are stupid, and will fail, and innocents have been and will continue to be irradiated, and land will continue to be spoiled.  Arguing over whether coal is worse (oh, if only there were some other choice besides coal and nuclear!) is really pointless, and I regret allowing myself to react to Maggie’s claim, even though I still disagree.

        [edited, as usual, but this time because disqus ATE several line feeds]

  17. occlupanid says:

    Super-happy M K-B  is part of Boing Boing. It’s so wonderful to see science journalism done well. Wacky and curious questions getting the legit science treatment, equal parts wonder and skepticism combined with thoroughness. And bonus, it’s always a good read.

  18. Stuart Hancock says:

    My experiences:

    I have a SOR/T dosimeter (electronic) – it’s pretty cool (NATO-approved! :-), and I fly a fair amount – it’s always in my backpack.   I also have a radiointerface for it – I can dump data from it with little effort (altho’ why their interface is still RS-232 is beyond me…).

    I’ve not done this in a while, but I have gone through the effort in the past to dump the data from my dosimeter (and it measures, only, gamma and neutrons), and have found that I can graph my flights as a result.  What I’ve seen:  readings all over the map.  Some flights I’ve seen barely a burp; others, wow.   A bit of research seems to indicate that, while altitude is certainly a factor, time of year and (if I remember right) sunspot activity plays a part as well.

    As a side note:  I’ve never seen neutron activity.  It’s all gamma, according to my device.  I can wear it on a lanyard around my neck, and it chirps agreeably for each gamma particle it detects.  And it’s gotten fairly chirpy up high from time to time…

    Regards

  19. Thebes says:

    Its absurd to compare ionizing radiation one is exposed to on an airplane with internalized radiation where radioactive emitters are absorbing into the body and continually radiate very small areas of tissue.
    I-131 concentrates in the thyroid.
    Strontium-90 concentrates in the bones.
    Many transuranics are insoluble and lodge into lung tissue continually radiating an area the size of a pin head with alpha particles.
    By contrast the x-rays from space most typically pass harmlessly through us, and at the very least the dose is spread throughout our entire body, rather than concentrated in extremely small bits of tissue.

  20. RODRIGO PIRIZ says:

    Excelent blog.

  21. Andrew Levin says:

    “However, when the analysis focused on how long pilots had been flying, differences emerged. The chromosome translocation frequency of those who had flown the most was more than twice that of those who had flown the least — biologically significant — after taking age into account.”also there’s these utlra high intensity gamma ray flashes from lightning if you are close to the scource which is possible for planes

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