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back to article Thorium and inefficient solar power? That's good enough for me

So we're all back from our hols, noses down to the grindstone for the run into Crimble: time for some idle speculation on the future of our energy production systems. Or if we're to be purist about it, our energy production/transformation systems. We will, thankfully, leave entirely aside the complete dog's dinner that our …

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Slightly fruity comparison

I have to point out that for your banana analogy to be correct, the entire world's banana consumption would need to take place in a half-acre block. Suddenly this doesn't sound so safe, and not least from a biohazard point of view. Plus the fruit flies would be unbelivable.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

The obligatory XKCD reference:

http://xkcd.com/radiation/

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Thanks for the link. Very informative.

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Alien

Re: Slightly fruity comparison

Fruit flies? Of the radioactive mutant variety?

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

If all that banana consumption took place in a half-acre block, radiation would be a minor problem compared to the bowel-gasses!

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That's the problem with b***cks statistics. You pick and choose random numbers as you please - and all of a sound make something look exactly the way you want it to. What the frigging hell does the entire planet eating bananas have to do with radiation from a damaged nuclear power plant? I'm sure that will warm up no end those Japanese people who live in the proximity of it and risk developing various forms of cancers down to their 10th generation. You and your family and loved ones, go and live close to a facility which is farting at the seams contaminated materials every other week - and than we'll see after a while how keen you are on academic-but-irrelevant numbers on a paper. Relevance - that's what is missing. Just jumbling up some numbers together to make up a blingy statistic is not enough - the bigger picture is what matters.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

The point is Mr NIMBY is that radiation is a fact of life and we shouldn't base public policy on emotional scaremongering from a position of ignorance.

That is the bigger picture that matters.

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Coat

Re: Fruit flies like...

a banana.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Fruit flies like...

"a banana."

Feed them only on bananas and they develop Type 2 Diabetes - much to the delight of those doing DNA research on the subject.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

xj25vm, the fact that you seem to think that radiation causes hereditary cancers makes me think you may well be the wrong person to be talking about statistics. And adding a "THINK OF THE CHILDREN" just makes it worse.

Follow the link to XKCD and you will see how little radiation is involved. People living in Cornwall or Devon get more extra radiation over there lifetime.

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re "If all that banana consumption took place in a half-acre block, radiation would be a minor problem compared to the bowel-gasses!"

sounds like an opportunity to capture biogas to me :-D

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

> "the bigger picture is what matters"

> concerns higher background radiation

> tsunami-devastated region

IMPLYING!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Slightly fruity comparison

"People living in Cornwall or Devon get more extra radiation over there lifetime."

Your mistake is believing that all that matters is the quantity of radiation. It's not that simple. The effect of a radiation leak depends on exactly which isotopes are released in which chemical compounds into which part of the environment. You can't just say: it's so many becquerels/sieverts/roentgens/whatever, which isn't too much, therefore it can't be too dangerous. The famous example is radioactive iodine: even tiny amounts of radioactive iodine are dangerous if they get into the food of people who are short of iodine.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

you forgot to say that radioactive iodine is dangerous because it is intensely radioactive with a half ;life measured in days, therefore radiation levels are actually a very GOOD way to assess its danger.

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Indeed, the universe is a radioactive place, where's the off switch?

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Coat

Re: Slightly fruity comparison

You drive down to Geneva then turn left at CERN. Take the lift downwards underneath the "Science and Technology Center" copper-colored ball. At level -1.666 there will be a big red button with gothic lettering spelling

"DO NOT PUSH UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES! MISUSE WILL BE PROSECUTED".

Push it.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Slightly fruity comparison

No, radioactive iodine is dangerous in small amounts because it goes to your thyroid gland where you least want this radioactivity. You can eat a lot more solid plutonium in bequerel terms without ill effect, because it passes straight through you.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

Nope. The radiation is diluted by the entire Pacific Ocean, just to start. Bananas are mostly consumed on land, a smaller area than the Pacific Ocean.

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"People living in Cornwall or Devon get more extra radiation over there lifetime."

Hmmm... that explains a lot.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

at the restaurant at the edge of the universe. order menu item 42.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

"You can eat a lot more solid plutonium in bequerel terms without ill effect, because it passes straight through you."

Actually, Pu is toxic. Never mind the radiation, the metal itself will do you in.

Radioactive Iodine can be counteracted by non-radioactive Iodine in the form of tablets. The therapy needs to be started immediately to be most effective. The human body prefers the non-radioactive flavor and will displace the radioactive isotope. Chernobyl was a problem as it took a couple of days for the the local bosses to admit that the reactor blew up and people should be evacuated. The 15-30 that died as a result of RA I issues died from politics and a bad case of CYA by the local authorities.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

Thanks for that enlightening fact. In case you missed it, my point is that spreading a known quantity of radiation uniformly over the entire planet is very, very different from concentrating it in a 100 miles radius. And that is what the fruity statistic is NOT emphasizing. I could say that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs emitted less harmful radiation than the total sum of radiation emitted by some minor and frequently recurring event spread over the entire Galaxy (and I could also use the time dimension to my advantage - and spread it over 100.000 years as well - just to make sure) - and all of a sudden make those two catastrophic events look harmless and pale in insignificance. But that's just manipulating statistics to one's own advantage. And by the way, I don't see how that type of contortion of numbers to fit one's mindset and agenda is more of a clear-headed scientific reasoning than the scaremongering of the "NIMBY's". Sorry pal - you just have a different axe to grind - but axe it is.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

Not really: you piss out the K-40 over time so it does pretty much end up in the oceans.....

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

"spreading a known quantity of radiation uniformly over the entire planet is very, very different from concentrating it in a 100 miles radius. And that is what the fruity statistic is NOT emphasizing." (and the rest)

Well said, saved me the trouble.

Worstall doesn't generally give a monkeys or have a clue outside his specialist subject, that's clear from this article and his rantings elsewhere (there aren't many places that tolerate his output, such as this classic "it takes longer than one year to get planning permission" (in the context of routine UK housing, link deliberately omitted here)).

In this latest rant here Worstall doesn't even seem to acknowledge the fundamental and largely unavoidable fact that whether a particular electricity generation installation makes money or not over its lifetime depends on the state of the market over its lifetime, which is currently kind of hard for "the markets" to predict (there is a price per kWh like you and I pay, but there are also other factors to consider).

Illustrating similar effects in the gas market is Centrica's decision this week to abandon their partially completed plans for more gas storage in the UK (which already has among the lowest storage capacity around Europe, in terms of days gas usage).

Some readers may be aware that recent years have seen a record number of "gas balancing alerts" in the UK where short term demand comes pretty close to exceeding short term supply. A day or two's worth of distributed hydrogen storage may make a small contribution towards avoiding that. Empasis on "may" and "small". You can't really run a successful economy for long on faith (aka "confidence"), whatever the likes of Worstall may think.

The lack of understanding here from the commentards is sad but not hugely surprising, given the UK's (and presumably elsewhere) state of education in numeracy, logic, and even science, and the volume of media on the side of the nuclear lobbyists.

A Retired Physicist, former MInstPhys, still MIET.

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Headmaster

Re: Slightly fruity comparison

So.... Mr "Retired Physicist" talking from on high to the rubes...

It's all down to ignorance and nuclear lobbying? And a lack of logic?

But on the other hand, relying on solar/nuclear is faith and the infrastructure is crutters anyways because of economic uncertainty over the price of electricity?

"Member of Institution of Engineering and Technology"

Yeah. I despair of my profession.

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JLV
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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

Not to mention that, by definition, something that is emitting a lot because it has a short half-life, has... a short half-life.

Though a lot of people who worry about nuclear power miss that bit, it hasn't escaped military thinking about area denial and/or alternatives to blowing stuff up - if it emits a lot, it decays quickly and will shortly only be dangerous to people remaining in the area for a long time.

Having said, Fukushima has shown us that we need to be way more clever about deploying active-safety reactors near densely populated areas. I read somewhere that the main reason our nuke plants kinda look & feel the same is because they were scaled-up version of the ones first put into subs.

It's high time more effort is put into designing and producing plants that CANNOT sustain a reaction when not receiving active power and control, rather than ones that tend to overheat. Not sure about selling the idea to Joe Public however, Fukushima was by most metrics a big fail, not least rendering uninhabitable a goodly stretch of coastline on one of the most densely populated countries around.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

"Yeah. I despair of my profession."

You and me both mate. Some of the dodgiest characters I know, making some of the dodgiest engineering decisions I've seen, are FIET.

But how about addressing the message rather than the messenger? (The MinstPhys/MIET rubbish was just to pre-empt the usual "what does he know about it", apologies for the distraction).

"It's all down to ignorance and nuclear lobbying? And a lack of logic?"

Lots of comments here seem to be. Please don't encourage them.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Slightly fruity comparison

The radiation in the South-West is from radon, which gets directly into the lungs (it's a gas). The means of getting the dosage is important as well as the half-life.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Slightly fruity comparison

Remember A C Clarke on elderly scientists, which is why I don't go around nowadays telling people what is and is not possible.

I completely miss the point or relevance of Centrica not investing in gas storage. If we had a government, and not a collection of right wing special interest groups, they would be building our own gas storage facilities. But hey, my manor house has its own oil storage tank and a 50kW generator, you 99% will just have to burn the furniture (saith Cameron et al)

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

Eeuw, a supercritical banana split

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

"If we had a government, and not a collection of right wing special interest groups, they would be building our own gas storage facilities"

Quite so. But as you rightly say, we don't have a government, and even before this lot, ever since privatisation we've left energy delivery (and policy too, largely) in the hands of "the markets". Hence this week's news, Centrica changing their mind and cancelling plans for much-needed additional gas storage. Clearer now?

tldr; Centrica holding us plebs to ransom till they get a more interesting (more profitable) deal on the project.

"my manor house has its own oil storage tank and a 50kW generator, you 99% will just have to burn the furniture (saith Cameron et al)"

Probably Cameron and most of the rest of our "representatives" in the Millionaires Cabinet (~30 in the cabinet, ~two dozen millionaires. It must be true, it was in the Daily Mail).

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

" Having said, Fukushima has shown us that we need to be way more clever about deploying active-safety reactors near densely populated areas. I read somewhere that the main reason our nuke plants kinda look & feel the same is because they were scaled-up version of the ones first put into subs."

Ah, finally, a man hitting the point of the topic head-on.

You are precisely correct, civilian nuclear plants ARE derived from U.S. nuclear submarine development. From that governmentally subsidized technological development the companies most involved with the military contracts - General Electric, Babcock and Wilcox, and Westinghouse - saw the possibility of creating a profitable civilian market for the systems. Voila, 'instant' civiian nuclear power plants and marketing campaigns (because, unless you are a complete fool, you *do* understand that the companies directly marketed their nuclear technology to BOTH the power companies and the communities they served in order to get the construction contracts, because they directly built what they sold).

So the problem with civilian nuclear power is what our accidents with the technology has proven: it is not fault-tolerant. And this is the reality in a nutshell, what all the vehemently pro-nuclear commentors here never want to mention, the elephant in the room. The pro-nuclear commentors say they do not understand the anti-nuclear concerns, 'They are just ignorant of the truth!', is what is said.

There's the truth. On the table, but many choose to ignore it anyway:

Our current implementation of nuclear fission technology is FUNDAMENTALLY UNSAFE because it is NOT FAULT TOLERANT.

The pro-nuclear side constantly talks about the safe reactor designs that will quell the discussions...but those are not the ones in current operation. The future may bring much safer reactor designs but we must deal with our hundreds of currently operational reactors, including their decommissioning procedures, for a long time to come.

So we have a problem, a Catch-22: it is believed that we can construct safe nuclear reactors, if only we could make the nuclear reactors we have already constructed safe.

So, therefore, the public is skeptical and the pro-nuclear lobby doesn't understand why, 'Trust us!', they say. But the public trusted the nuclear designers before and now realize they have a huge worldwide safely problem and, therefore , are not likely to give out that level of free trust again.

Yet the pro-nuclear lobby just can't seem to understand that most basic of human premise, fear. In the case of the nuclear industry, a fear they caused on themselves: "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice... "

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Slightly fruity comparison

"The point is Mr NIMBY is that radiation is a fact of life and we shouldn't base public policy on emotional scaremongering from a position of ignorance."

And of course, big, big thanks to commenter "xj25vm" for providing the textbook example of that ignorance!

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Pint

Re: Slightly fruity comparison

"...the radioactive release from Fukushima is, per hour, half that from the hourly consumption of bananas around the world. ..."

I take issue with the wording of the banana-half of this comparison. Properly parsed, it implies a 'release' of radioactivity from the 'consumption' of bananas.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

For comparison, a round trip to Mars would expose an astronaut to about 660 mS, distributed over a year.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

Fukushima was hit by not one but two of the worst natural disaster imaginable: a richter scale 9.1 earthquake and a 30 foot tsunami. The only way to top that would be to have either a volcano erupt under the powerplant, or a direct hit by a meteorite.

And the result is that not a single person died, and only a small area in the immediate vicinity of the power plant is heavily irradiated. That's pretty freaking impressive.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Slightly fruity comparison

"not a single person died, and only a small area in the immediate vicinity of the power plant is heavily irradiated. That's pretty freaking impressive."

True in so far as it goes, and the massive wider impact of the tsunami must not be forgotten.

On the other hand, what kind of plan puts a nuclear plant in an earthquake zone and builds it with sea defences that have a predicted 50% chance of being overtopped during the operational lifetime of the station. And continues to operate it.

TEPCO were already in serious regulatory difficulty before the tsunami. At Fukushima they hadn't been doing the legally required scheduled maintenance (including the diesel standby generator maintenance). The generators were also sited at low level, where water could and did cause damage if the sea defences were overtopped.

When Fukushima's grid connection failed, as it could have done with or without a tsunami or an earthquake, and even before the water damage, the out-of-maintenance generators didn't start. If I remember rightly, the reactors were already shut down (but hot) at this point, so when the incoming grid power fails, the station's cooling, control and monitoring systems become reliant on generator power. But the unmaintained generator initially doesn't start, and is then wrecked by water predictably coming over the sea defences and getting at the generator.

Correction welcome.

It's really not that much to boast about in terms of a success story for the nuclear industry.

And that's without even starting to think of how they plan to dispose of the massive (and still increasing) quantities of contaminated water still being accumulated around the plant.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

The generators at Fukushima Daiichi did in fact start up OK after the earthquake knocked out the grid connections. The tsunami arrived about 30 minutes after the earthquake and the flooding knocked out the generators. The battery power reserves kept things running for a few hours after that until they were exhausted at which point the reactor cores started to overheat and the hydrogen explosions happened.

As for earthquakes, Japan IS an earthquake zone. Over 100,000 people died in the 1923 Kanto earthquake in Tokyo, over 5000 in the 90s in the one in Kobe. I've spent a couple of months total in Japan over the past few years and I've been through two noticeable earthquakes, not noticed a couple more very small ones and seen news reports of others elsewhere in the country on the TV. The earthquake in 2011 resulted in the big refinery at Chiba blowing up and spewing massive amounts of toxic smoke across large areas of eastern Tokyo but basically there are no safe places to build anything in Japan. And let's not forget taifu (typhoons) -- did you know the cause of the second-greatest loss of life in Japan in 2011 was a pair of typhoons that killed over 90 people? At the same time no-one was dying or even getting sick from radiation at and around Fukushima Daiichi.

As for the sea defences of the nuclear power stations it's worth noting that nearly every coastal city in Japan was unprepared for a tsunami of more than a couple of metres in size. That failure to anticipate a 15 metre tsunami resulted in 20,000 people dead and large areas of the country smashed. The sea defences at Fukushima Daiichi were actually of a much higher standard than the towns where people lived (and died), built to defend against a five-metre tsunami in an perceived excess of caution.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

"The point is Mr NIMBY is that radiation is a fact of life and we shouldn't base public policy on emotional scaremongering from a position of ignorance.

That is the bigger picture that matters."

Fair enough. There's prime property vacant and available outside of Chernobyl.

Since radiation is a fact of life and we shouldn't base public policy on emotional scaremongering from a position of ignorance, move right in!

Radiation isn't a single thing. Different types cause different effects, depending on how one is exposed.

Alpha particles aren't a big deal, you can hold a really hot alpha emitter in your hand without significant harm.

Get it in your lungs or gut, you're SOL.

Beta particles are a bit more problematic, we'll not even go into gamma emitters. Just rather bad news to hang out around in quantity.

And therein lies the rub. Quantity. A banana or a granite countertop releases a miniscule quantity of radioactive isotopes or radiation.

A damaged or destroyed nuclear reactor releases supertanker loads. Repeatedly.

To date, we've had three reactors either melt down or blow up, then burn. Three mile island (now, two and a quarter mile island (local joke at the college near there), Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Chernobyl holds the grand prize. Steam void production cut fission efficiency, so the rods were removed further in error. Power then spiked tremendously, so the rods were reinserted. Regrettably, there were graphite tips on the rods, which acted as a moderator causing a prompt critical reaction that explosively disassembled the reactor. The graphite core then caught fire and the superheated fuel rods melted fully down, with no containment, throwing all manner of extremely nasty radioisotopes into the surrounding environment.

TMI was a debacle that is now taught in nuclear emergency management on what not to do in an emergency. Fortunately, with the significant melt, it finally was noticed and coolant was restored to the reactor and prevented a 100% meltdown. That is rather significant to me, as I'm about two hours by car from it and remember the emergency quite well from my teen years.

Fukushima was a debacle caused by damage considered impossible creating the conditions necessary to cause the emergency. Had the generators survived and the service tunnels that carried electrical service about the complex not flooded, we'd not even know that Fukushima existed.

Still, we do know now, it's still an awful mess.

We do need a bit better planning, both on human factors, unusual environmental factors and byzantine errors being compensated in the design. That is quite good in the generation 3+ plants and generation 4 plants. It can only be better, based upon lessons learned, with thorium plants.

I rather like thorium plants for a reason not mentioned in the article. They can "burn" the waste from our current nuclear power plants, the residue having a much, much, much shorter half-life, hence having to be safely stored for far less time than tens of thousands of years.

And believe it or not, I'm pro-nuclear energy.

So as long as we don't do another Windscale or US Army SL1.

As for solar, there are experimental cells that are putting out energy with 40% efficiency. The cheap Chinese models get, at best, 10% efficiency, usually less for amorphous cells.

Meanwhile, the author hitched his wagon to fuel cells over batteries, good idea, but ignored supercapacitors, which could be one component for an interim solution. The author also ignored catalyzed electrolysis, which increases the efficiency of electrolysis significantly.

In short, there are many, many options from multiple disciplines. Put the lot of the boffins together, heaven knows what they'll come up with, but it'll most likely be cool.

Expensive as hell, but cool and eventually, the price will come down.

Just as the price of generators came down when they came into common usage. Just as television prices came down when they came into common usage.

Just as VAT keeps going up when one least expects it. But the latter is merely a case of unintended results... ;)

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

"Follow the link to XKCD and you will see how little radiation is involved. People living in Cornwall or Devon get more extra radiation over there lifetime."

I live in SE Pennsylvania. My area actually has a lower level of background radiation than southwest through north of me 20 miles out.

My bedrock is largely limestone, their bedrock is granite. Hence, my home has essentially zero radon, 20 miles all around in Pennsylvania, radon in basements is a big deal.

Well, not the radon, but the radioactive lead that it decays do and falls as dust in the house.

In those areas, not dispersing the gas from the basement can give a lung cancer rate equal to a two pack a day unfiltered cigarette smoker.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

"The famous example is radioactive iodine: even tiny amounts of radioactive iodine are dangerous if they get into the food of people who are short of iodine."

I think worse, such as Caesium-137. I'm rather attached to my soft tissues without that in them.

Given a choice between significant amounts of Caesium-137 taken in with food or another source, I'd pick sitting on a pound of Cobalt-60.

Less time and unpleasantness to wait for.

Even better, regular, pre-nuclear testing background radiation would suit me just fine.

Now, where did we park the TARDIS...?

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

"you forgot to say that radioactive iodine is dangerous because it is intensely radioactive with a half ;life measured in days"

As I recall, it's measured in weeks. As in one week and a day, or eight days. Other isotopes have around a two week half-life, some a 30ish year half-life, etc.

But, the shorter the half-life, typically the hotter it is for a living organism in a bad way.

Of course, there *is* a US politician who thinks that adding radioisotopes to the water supply would be a good thing. I'm just happy he's not from my state.

http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2013/08/oregon-gop-art-robinson-nuclear-waste-airplanes

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

"Indeed, the universe is a radioactive place, where's the off switch?"

Near the core of Sag A*. ;)

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

"Bananas are mostly consumed on land, a smaller area than the Pacific Ocean."

What is really funny is, the radioactivity present in bananas comes from the bedrock. The fruit happens to concentrate it enough to be measured with an inexpensive geiger counter.

Fun kitchen science. Alarm someone with the "radioactive banana", take a bite from it, while sitting the counter tube on a granite countertop...

Then explain that detection isn't quantity or exposure.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

Faith != Confidence

If I drop a coin 1000 times I can be "confident" it will be heads 500 times. Ish.

This is not the same as "Faith", which, when applied in some circumstances would appear to ask the coin to turn into a piece of cheese. Or a toaster. Some people (lets call them "The Cheesists") may have "faith" that that will one day happen. I do not. Rather I have "confidence" that the coin will continue to be a coin and that the only outcomes will be heads or tails.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

"You are precisely correct, civilian nuclear plants ARE derived from U.S. nuclear submarine development"

In a large, vague way yes.

On the other hand, Fukushima-style Boiling Water Reactors do NOT fint into submarines.

For that, you have Pressurized Water Reactors: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_PWR_reactors

> But the public trusted the nuclear designers before

When was that?

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

You obviously either didn't look at that chart link or you didn't understand. Two Fukushima workers experienced potentially hazardous dose according to the chart (http://xkcd.com/radiation/) and that chart actually takes a darker view of the situation than other sources do. None of the surrounding population was. If you have had one or more sunburns during your life, you are as threatened as they are respecting cancer incidence. As regards bananas instead of thinking about the "world" eating bananas, considered walking by that bright yellow pile in the produce section. A shipload of the fruit can set off radiation detectors.

You can buy into the "be afraid" meme, but that won't protect you from radiation. You need to avoid bananas, long distance jet travel, ski vacations, brick, granite, medical scans, live at the lowest elevation above sea level you can, and absolutely avoid tans and sunburn. That of course leads to an entire raft of other health issues, since you need to be exposed to some ionizing radiation for your system to produce vitamin D. Happy paranoia.

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Re: Slightly fruity comparison

Hmmm .. wouldn't that depend on how thinly you smush the banana?

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Headmaster

I think you'll find...

That "dog's bollocks" means that something is very good. The term is rarely used when referring to government.

Probably you meant "pig's ear".

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Re: I think you'll find...

So called because dogs keep licking them, so they must be good.

Also, I think he might have meant 'dog's breakfast', i.e a mess.

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