We’ve all grappled with the plethora of different radiation measurements, reported in mixed measures and with comparisons that tell you next to nothing, such as comparing Cesium ingestion with a cross-country flight. Looking around for qualified information, it’s interesting to see how much research has been avoided on this issue. Much of what we know hinges on the work of Rolf Sievert.
This paper by Gerald Weissmann of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology deals mostly with the biological effects of radiation, including a brief bio of Sievert, but its general coverage of the crisis is also well done.
Here are a few relevant excepts:
The disaster which hit Japan on March 11 was unique in the atomic age: an earthquake, followed by a tsunami, followed by a meltdown. There have been other earthquakes, other tsunamis and other nuclear accidents, such as Chernobyl, but the calamitous sequence at Fukushima Daiichi had not happened before. It put a full stop to arguments both for and against nuclear energy; time had come to cope with the crisis, to monitor the site, and to gauge its effects on humans and the environment. A clear, rapid account was expected so that: “Civil society in all countries could assess the record of nuclear power and draw the conclusions.” It didn’t quite play out that way.
Japanese authorities followed the playbook of other national disasters (the BP oil spill in the Gulf, Hurricane Katrina). They went through the stages of administrative grief: Shock and Disbelief followed by Denial and Anger, Bargaining and Guilt. They issued frequent and often contradictory accounts; but pretty soon the facts of the meltdown emerged.
What we do know about the effects of radiation on humans we owe in large part to the work of Rolf Maximilian Sievert, who devised the instruments by which we measure radiation doses, and who found ways to protect doctors and patients from the ill effects of X-rays and radium.
Daedalus, the great inventor, had fashioned wings of feathers and wax and taught his son Icarus to fly. Urged ever upward by his father, Icarus flew too close to the sun; the wax that held his wings together softened in solar heat and he plummeted into the Ikarian sea. It’s a legend to remember anytime we play with fire, without quite knowing all we need to know about thermodynamics.
That’s why we need the Sieverts of this world to point out that “the exact measurement of radiation represents the first step in its ultimate control.”
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