Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 22, 2011

How much ionizing radiation can one absorb?

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Christopher Bellavita on March 22, 2011

An illustrative graphic, below, describing “the ionizing radiation dose a person can absorb from various sources” — from sleeping next to someone through spending ten minutes next to the Chernobyl reactor core after meltdown.

The chart’s creator, Randall Munroe, warns people that he is not a radiation expert, and “If you’re basing radiation safety procedures on an internet PNG image and things go wrong, you have no one to blame but yourself.”

You can click on the image below to view a larger version of the chart.  Even better is to look at the original chart at this link: http://xkcd.com/radiation/

[Thanks to Maj Gordon Hunter, 8th Civil Support Team (WMD) for the lead.  He asks how come “no one in the media has yet actually quantified what ‘a large amount of radiation’ is?  100 Alpha particles?  A chunk of Cobalt 60 the size of one’s head?  The background rad being reported on the [Japanese] reactor is actually less than the background normally found in Colorado just by walking outside.  Sometimes, knowing the math behind rad can make life hard on your TV (being shouted at, things flung into, etc).”]

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Comment by Arnold Bogis

March 22, 2011 @ 10:39 pm

Thanks for posting this graphic. I think it can be very helpful.

To the question, “how come “no one in the media has yet actually quantified what ‘a large amount of radiation’ is?” Well, many outlets have. The issue is that they don’t do it for each nuclear-related article so the “how much radiation is dangerous” pieces are quickly buried by breaking news out of Japan or the Middle East. The issue might be better framed by the lack of good, understandable yardsticks by which people unfamiliar with radiation measurements can make comparative calculations (the same way they can easily make judgments on distance between meter and kilometer measurements).

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 23, 2011 @ 1:51 am

I may be wrong or I may be right but I believe the mantra of EPA and the American Health Physics Society is there is no known safe dose of ionizing radiation. Yet all genetic material on planet earth may well have both beneficial and deterimental impacts on it from ionizing radiation. So perhaps those who really want to argue or add or subtract from the knowledge base of readers of this blog will make this the longest blog thread ever on this blog.

Comment by john comiskey

March 23, 2011 @ 7:11 am

Japan could and should be a lesson that we learned rather than a lesson we didn’t learn or just ignored.

In 2005 I had the opportunity to train at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s facility in Mercury Nevada. My training was part of an initiative to develop a cadre of officers that would supplement the department’s emergency service unit in the event of a large scale CBRNE event. Prior to the radiation training, many of us trained at the EPA’s Chemical Training Center and found the training to be extremely difficult. One officer opined that he had become a cop because he couldn’t do chemistry. Many of us were concerned that the radiological training would be over our heads. To our surprise two things happened: the instructors were first rate and radiation is much easier to understand then multiple chemical agents.

The training center is a marvel and as a student of history is was fascinating to sit on the (since dilapidated) bleachers where presidents had witnessed firsthand the effects of nuclear detonations.

What made the instructors credible was their self-evident self-interests -they live and work around radiation and continue to do so.

Simply stated, radiation is a normative and natural part of our earthly existence. I too am far from a nuclear expert and have allowed by HAZMAT Tech qualification lapse. IMHO, I do have a good high-level understanding of the radiation threat and that starts with the idea that the perceived threat and likely panic of a radiation incident be it intentional (especially a dirty bomb) and/or an accident and the likely panic that would ensue is far greater than the actual radiation. This of course does not include a nuclear Armageddon or the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

So, shouldn’t we start identifying lessons that we might learn from Japan?

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 23, 2011 @ 8:40 am

By the way should have mentioned that I underwent 41 sessions of beam radiation for prostate cancer in spring 2002. Also in REP exercises conducted by FEMA often the Wicks from camping lights were hidden to provide an actual radioactive source for those conduction contamination screening.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 23, 2011 @ 4:06 pm

Apparently FDA has banned some vegetable imports from Japan?

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 26, 2011 @ 10:32 am

Forget for the moment airborne radioactive particles (and not that face masks like those most are shown wearing do NOT protect against radiation) but it is the contamination of the water supply that looks like a horrendous issue for Japan is developing.

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