Welcome or not, nuclear energy has worked its way into the U.S. presidential election. It represents a cornerstone of Senator McCain’s proposed energy policy, and it is the source of distrust among both presidential candidates when asked about the nuclear energy ambitions of the Iranian government.
But the conundrum of nuclear energy most profoundly exists in the long-term byproducts it leaves behind. Nevada’s Yucca Mountain is a representation of this conundrum – as it is the proposed dumping ground of America’s spent nuclear fuel.
The Environmental Protection Agency has recently recommended a Yucca Mountain health standard plan for the next 10,000 years. The standard states that people living in the vicinity of the Yucca Mountain dump receive no more than 15 millirems (mrem) a year in radiation – roughly the dosage of a standard x-ray.
But what is an acceptable annual radiation dosage?
It is important to first discern the difference between natural and man-made radiation sources. According to the Office of Radiation Protection at the Washington State Department of Health, “Natural radiation contributes about 81% of the annual dose to the population and man-made radiation contributes the remaining 19%.”
Natural radiation is derived from a variety of sources. Terrestrial radiation is projected from rocks, soil, and gases that emanate from the earth. Inhaled radon is estimated to deliver 200 mrem annually. The earth also receives cosmic radiation from the sun. Foods also contain radiation, delivering about 20 mrem a year.
Human beings, animals, and some plants naturally contain potassium, carbon-14, lead-210, and other radionuclides – which makes many living things naturally radioactive. Since these creatures are also radioactive, we receive small doses from being around them.
On average, Americans receive a dosage of about 360 millirem (mrem) of background radiation per year. This dosage varies and is dependent on a number of factors.
For example, if you live at higher elevations, you will be exposed to more cosmic radiation. The American Nuclear Society estimates cosmic radiation at 26 mrem at sea level and 63 mrem at the Colorado Plateau.
Man-made radiation sources include television (1 mrem), dental x-rays (1 mrem), computer screens (1 mrem), and other electronic devices. Tobacco contains thorium and lead-210, and usage of tobacco products delivers roughly 280 mrem annually.
The global population receives 1 mrem annually from accumulated nuclear fallout delivered from the numerous nuclear bomb detonations over the last several decades.
Other man-made sources include building materials, combustible fuels (gas, coal, etc.), smoke detectors, luminous watches, road construction materials, and other medical usage. Medical usage has a number of variables. For instance, CAT scans deliver 110 mrem, an upper GI x-ray delivers 245 mrem, and a barium enema delivers 405 mrem.
All of this brings us to the bigger question of how much radiation the population can tolerate. It is estimated that the likelihood of cancer death increases 10% if one accumulates a total of 250,000 mrem – this equates to over 3,000 mrem a year for 80 years. Given this, the overall accumulative health equation – the EPA’s Yucca Mountain mandate included – appears sound.