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Home » Science » An Explanation of the Japanese catastrophe & A Safe Practical Alternative


The earthquake, tsunami, and the ensuing nuclear disaster in Japan have been dominating the news for weeks. I have a background in nuclear physics, having taken an excellent course "Radiation Biology" which described the effects of radioactive isotopes on living organisms, and especially humans. (My Masters is in Natural Sciences.)

For those of you that may have forgotten your high school chemistry, isotopes are atoms of the same element which have different numbers of neutrons. Each element is given a number, which is simply the number of protons it has in its nucleus. For example oxygen has eight protons and therefore it has an atomic number of eight. Uranium has 92 protons and therefore is element number 92.  The other important number for each atom is its mass number.  This is simply the sum of the protons and neutrons in that atom. Small atoms from the first 20 or 30 elements generally have approximately the same number of protons and neutrons.  Oxygen for example has its eight protons separated by typically eight neutrons but sometimes nine or even 10. All three of these different atoms are called isotopes of oxygen.  Oxygen 16 has eight protons and eight neutrons, oxygen 17, eight protons and nine neutrons (8+9 = 17), oxygen 18, eight protons and 10 neutrons. If an oxygen atom has seven or fewer or 11 or more neutrons it is unstable and undergoes very rapid radioactive decay within a few seconds, so  does not exist in nature, except shortly after a supernova star explosion.

   Uranium, with 92 protons therefore is element 92  and has two different isotopes one with 146 (U 238) and one with 143 neutrons.  As you can see both of these isotopes have far more than one neutron for each proton.  Uranium 235 has a very special property, if a slow-moving neutron (called a thermal neutron because it has the energy that any atom would have at that particular temperature) hits an atom of U 235 the atom becomes violently unstable and shatters into two rather unequal pieces along with a couple of free neutrons. These, in turn can then shatter (or split) other U 235 atoms in what is commonly called a chain reaction. The process of spitting atoms is called nuclear fission.  This releases lots of very usable and useful energy but unfortunately, the pieces of the uranium atom now are much smaller atoms, which now have far too many neutrons to be stable.  Therefore these Fission Fragments of the uranium atom are extremely dangerous because they undergo very rapid radioactive decay emitting dangerous gamma rays and high-speed electrons called beta particles.


  In order to get rid of their excessive number of neutrons, these fragments will change a neutron into a proton. That raises the atomic number and makes yet a new element. Generally, there are so many extra neutrons that the atom spits out a number of these high-speed electrons which we call beta particles. Nuclear radiation has enough energy to damage important molecules in your body and of course if they attack your DNA, they will change or mutate the genes in the cell.  This  is generally not good for one's health. Unstable fission fragments are an unavoidable product of any nuclear power plant, or the detonation of a nuclear bomb. Many of these fission fragments have very short half-lives meaning that half of the atoms in a given sample will break down in a short time, typically minutes, seconds or a few hours.

  Unfortunately there are a few of these fission fragments that can last a long time and that may be absorbed by animals plants and humans.   The three worst of these radioactive atoms or isotopes are iodine 131, cesium 137 and strontium 90. Strontium 90 for example has a half-life of close to 30 (28.8) years. After that period of time, half of the strontium 90 atoms are still there and after another 28.8 years they still a quarter of it left. The worst part of strontium 90 is that it is directly under calcium in the periodic table. It very much resembles calcium and in fact strontium itself build better bones than calcium. Having some strontium in the diet is actually something good and your body will try to seek it out. Unfortunately if there is radioactive strontium, it behaves just like the harmless kind.  Your body will pick it up and deposit it in your bones where it then decays giving off beta particles again, turning an extra neutron into a proton and going from element 38 (strontium) into element 39, yttrium which unfortunately is still having too many neutrons so it also gives off another beta particle giving you a double dose of radiation. As for myself, I keep a supply of strontium supplement because having lots of strontium in your diet would mean your body is less likely to pick up the radioactive form, should it be disbursed during the unlikely event of a nearby nuclear reactor disaster or, the unfortunately more likely event of a nuclear terrorist attack. (UNCLE SUCK–PROTECT OUR OPEN BORDERS!!)  

   Many of these radioactive isotopes have lots of energy from the violent blasting out of the beta particle, sort of like the noise that accompanies a gunshot. Instead of sound waves however the atom gives off very high energy photons called gamma rays. Again, these gamma rays can also damage molecules in living organisms. What they do, is they knock off electrons from the atoms, creating ions which then will react immediately with nearby molecules causing additional damage. In fact nuclear radiation by ionizing water in your body may cause more damage than the nuclear particles themselves. A few natural atoms are so fat so to speak, that they want to get rid of whole clumps of particles from their nuclei. Uranium and thorium are two examples. To get rid of their excess weight they shoot out a bundle of two protons and two neutrons which is called an alpha particle, and is simply the same thing as the nucleus of a helium atom. This is actually the source of most of the helium found in the Earth's crust.

  Alpha particles cannot go very far because they are big and bulky and have a very strong charge so they cannot even penetrate your skin. Unfortunately if they are inside your body they are terrible because, when an alpha particle goes through a cell, even though it only penetrates a very short distance it is sort of like a big dumdum bullet. A beta particle is like a rabbit running through a cornfield, in comparison an alpha particle is like a bulldozer going through the cornfield. Any isotope that emits alpha particles inside your body is extremely dangerous and much worse than the same number of beta particle atoms. When uranium decays it gives off several so-called daughters which are also alpha emitters. One of the worst is radon. Because radon is a gas it gets into the air in places where there is lots of uranium in the ground. The radon only lasts for a few days but it's constantly being resupplied by decay of uranium. One of the worst parts of this process is the production of another deadly isotope called polonium 210. In many areas the phosphates used for fertilizers also contain lots of uranium and its decay products. The tobacco plant for some reason likes to concentrate the polonium 210 in its leaves, exposing cigarette smokers to serious levels of radiation. I have read that a one pack a day cigarette smoker gets the radiation dose equal to 200 chest x-rays per year. Why anybody would want to subject themselves to such a hazard is beyond me.

   Cesium 137 is the third serious fission fragment or radioactive isotope. Cesium is in the same column on the periodic table as potassium and sodium and your body will absorb cesium in place of those two necessary elements. Normal cesium is fairly harmless but the radioactive form of course is very bad for you, in addition to being a beta emitter, it also gives off gamma rays.

   Fortunately, we have always lived with nuclear radiation. Potassium, one of the elements necessary for life has several isotopes one of which with a half-life of 1.25 billion years is radioactive. We are constantly being exposed to radiation from the potassium in our bodies. Obviously, we have evolved to tolerate this and therefore low doses of radiation are probably not something to get hysterical about. In fact the natural radioactive potassium in our bodies is the largest source of internal radiation and it is unavoidable because this isotope is everywhere. Interestingly one of the particles given off by the radioactive potassium 40 is a tiny bit of antimatter, a positively charged electron which once it contacts an ordinary electron, annihilates both itself and the other electron in a burst of gamma rays.

   As far as nuclear power plants are concerned, they are generally very safe unless operated in a careless manner such as for example, with the notorious and very badly designed Chernobyl reactor (It used graphite which when heated enough can burn! The workers at the plant did some very stupid experiments, while they were sleepy at 4 AM!  The other stupid  situation  was locating numerous reactors next to the ocean in areas where tsunamis are a big risk. Japan is one of the most seismically active areas in the world. Why nuclear reactors would be situated as low as 13 feet above sea level in such an area, is an act of sheer lunacy. The real solution is not just to put your nuclear power plant in a higher location away from faults. It is to avoid using uranium as a fuel because there is a very viable alternative.


  Element number 90, thorium can be used to create nuclear fuel and unlike uranium were only 7/10 of 1% of the uranium, the isotope 235 can be used as a fuel, thorium 232 is 100% of all the thorium in nature and when bombarded with neutrons can be turned into the fissionable isotope uranium 233. which when used in a reactor, produces far less dangerous radiation and fission fragments than uranium 235. Thorium is also much more abundant and much safer to mine. Because of the way it operates, a thorium reactor cannot have a dangerous meltdown and because one of the isotopes that is generated is a powerful emitter of gamma radiation, any terrorist trying to steal nuclear material from a thorium reactor would be dead in a fairly short time. The waste from a thorium reactor is far less dangerous. These reactors can actually be used to "Burn" the deadly waste from Uranium reactors. For more information and proof of this idea Click on this Thorium fuel cycle – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia WHY DONT WE DONT WE DO THIS?! My explanation:

  1. It would put the established Uranium Industry out of business
  2. It would put our oil producing  "Friends" in Russia, Iran, Venezuela etc. out of business.
  3. It would put the ridiculous wind mill industry out of business (Would you like to climb up a 300 foot windmill to do repair and maintenance of the complex expensive machinery? A costly affair to say the least!) No one wants to live near these noisy ugly machines in any case. Solar panels actually slowly wear out from UV exposure and DO NOT WORK AT NIGHT!!
  4. It would greatly strengthen and enhance the US economy and provide lots of high skill, highly paid jobs, something our rivals would do anything to stop.

Lobbyists from all the above will be giving campaign contributions (Bribes) to our "loyal" Senatewhores and CongressWhores to keep us paying  for extortionate, polluting or very expensive inefficient unreliable energy sources. THIS SHOULD BE A PRIORITY ISSUE FOR THE 2012 ELECTION!!  



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