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The big earthquake one year on

Dear Reader,

We are coming up to the first anniversary of the Fukushima accident which was provoked by a big earthquake. Now as ever it is important to avoid going to one extreme or another. When we get sick a spoon full of medicine might make us feel better but that fact is not a license to drink the whole bottle in one go !

While I am very strongly in favour of improving safety standards in the nuclear industry and I am sure that some important lessons can be learnt from the Fukushima event, but we should not close down the whole nuclear industry just because of this accident. I always do point out that the burning of coal does release a vast amount of radioactivity into the air.

The majority of radioisotopes from nuclear power plants are short lived beta emitters which tend to go away quickly, the radioactivity in coal tends to be long lived alpha activity. As the alpha emitters tend to be so much more toxic and as they are long lived this is a nasty menace which people tend to forget about. So do not allow anyone to talk you into switching to coal as a way to close down scary looking nuclear plants.

Now on the subject of radioactivity, it is important to bear in mind that wind farms need neodymium for the magnets. The extraction of this metal often requires it to be extracted from monazite which is a radioactive mineral. So before anyone trys to sell you the idea of clean green wind power as an alternative to nuclear power then ask where the neodymium for the magnets comes from. The great problem with “greenness” is that you need to look at the whole life cycle of the object or the system, you also need to look at where the materials required for a device come from as well as what waste the device forms and how you are going to dispose of the device when it is no longer wanted.

I worry that unless the right degree of care is taken with the ore processing that the extraction of the neodymium will create large amounts of radioactive waste which might not be managed in a safe, environmentally sound or reasonable way.

But lets think for a moment about the radioactivity from the Fukushima accident, in common with chernobyl after the short lived iodines the most important radioisotope is Cs-137. This is a medium to long lived isotope which contributes to much of the dose which members of the public will get in the medium and long term after the accident. I saw a paper in the literature by J. Jandl, J. Novosad, J. Francová and H. Procházka, Veterniarni Medicina (Praha), 1989, 34(8), 485 to 490 which is on the subject of cesium removal from deer meat. What these Czech workers did was to pickle meat, by ion exchange the cesium came out of the meat and was lost into the pickling liquid. As only the meat and not the pickling liquid is consumed by humans this offers a method for the decontamination of meat.

The same idea has been written about by some Germans (R. Wahl and E. Kallee) in Nature, 1986, 323, 208. These workers reported that after five days 95 % of the cesium had been lost from the meat. They also reported that the meat tasted very good. So based on this work I would like to suggest that we should consider treating some foods after gathering them to lower their radioactivity content and thus make them fit for human consumption.

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