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Fear of radiation


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The dawn of radiophobia came from a historical instance in the story about the Radium Dial Painters.

These were mostly young girls who were employed to paint the faces of watches and instruments with luminous paint early in the 20th century (1916-26). The paint contained radium whose radioactive decay provided the energy for it to glow in the dark. Painting the fine lines, numerals and dots was exacting work, and the best workers licked their brushes to keep a fine point.

In total numbers, there were 1,339 painters with radioactive count rates below 3.7mBq (and no cancers); out of 191 painters with more than 3.7mBq, there were 46 deaths from bone cancer. A new safety rule was introduced following denial by management and litigation by workers. This stimulated a spirit of fear and distrust of nuclear radiation for the first time. Practical radiation safety, like safety in other activities, is largely a matter of education, training and overcoming ignorance.

There were no painter deaths after 1926 because a threshold in whole-body radioactivity of 3.7mBq was established and in 1941, the U.S. National Bureau of Standards set that guideline based off the observation from the Radium Dial Painters incident. After the unpleasant surprise of the carcinogenic effect of radium, as exposed by the Dial Painters, the safety environment was precautionary and suspicious for any new unknown alpha emitters, like plutonium 1940.

The nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 used plutonium-239. Plutonium is an artificial element that only existed in microgram quantities until mass produced by the first nuclear reactors after December 1942. The earth used to contain large amounts of plutonium but it has completely decayed away over the last 4.5 billion years.

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So in effect plutonium does not fission at all, except when artificially stimulated by free neutrons within a reactor or an implosion with dynamite within a bomb. This shows that plutonium-239 is a rather innocuous material, in spite of the character given to it in horror movies and misrepresented by social science (not scientific).

The plutonium story, like the Fukushima story, should be rewritten based on real world observations and not based on irrational fear.

The first use of plutonium as a fission material was in 1945 right here in New Mexico, symbolically called Trinity — the union of three; proton, electron and neutron. To be continued.

Missed a letter: kralspaces.wordpress.com.

Martin Kral