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Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Japanese in a spin over radioactivity leaks

I sympathise with the tendency of the editorial panel of Today* to squeeze into their programme more news reports by reducing the detail associated with any one of them. But I condemn the practice when taken to such an extreme that some essential ambiguity remains in the mind of the average listener owing to the absence of one or more crucial details from the reported material.

Such a nefandous transgression arose today in connection with the latest leak of ‘radioactive water’ (sic) from the Fukoshima nuclear power plant which was ‘crippled’ last year  by the inundating sea after an offshore earthquake.  We were told on Today today that owing to the high levels of radioactivity, the teams of nuclear engineers struggling to contain the leak had to be ‘rotated’, clearly leaving the listener confused and anxious about whether the teams were working  on a rota or were actually spinning.  I will be writing to the BBC board later today to demand that a clarification be broadcast on Today tomorrow. In the meantime, an informal clarification follows for those too agitated to wait for an official version. To the physicists amongst my broad readership, I apologise for the statement of the obvious that follows.

It is common practice for workers exposed to a localised nuclear hazard to spin while working. Although there are drawbacks (nausea and disorientation being the worst), they are outweighed by the benefit, which is that the radioactive emissions entering the body are spread thinly across the entire surface of the body rather than being concentrated in one spot, thus prolonging the time for which the worker can be exposed to the emissions while remaining within safe levels of exposure.

Owing to the random temporal distribution of radioactive decay the period of the spinning has to be short compared with the half-life of the elements involved. At Fukoshima it is clearly not the water itself that is radio-active, but various contaminants including Cobalt 98, Uranium 7, and Ytturbium 52. The International Centre for the Management of Nuclear Incidents publishes tables of data from which a suitable periodicity can be readily determined taking into account the relative concentrations of the various contaminants. My own estimates suggest that a safe speed of rotation for the Fukoshima workers would be between 8 and 14 rpm.

I can now deal with the two remaining questions that I Imagine most of you still have in mind. The dizziness and nausea arising from the rotation are minimised by dosing the workers with nefandril, at a rate of 2-3mg per kg of body mass (a similar dose to that used to treat sea-sickness or the side effects of labrynthitis). Accurate and reliable monitoring of the spread of exposure across the body is achieved using a circumferential dosimeter; this is identical in function to single-point dosimeters, and is actually composed of them, packaged into strips with Velcro surfaces so they can be straightforwardly strapped around the waist.                                                                                             

*A daily current affairs programme on the BBC domestic radio channel known as ‘Radio 4’ – Ed.

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