Dear Science: Nuclear power


(Updated: See Below)

Jonathan Golob, a.k.a. Dear Science, brings us an overview of nuclear power, just in time for its return to the spotlight.

From the entry on radiation, since it’s the scary part:

Imagine we’re shooting at someone through a wall. The cannon ball, flying 40x slower than the bullet but much heavier, will smash the into the wall, causing huge amounts of damage to the wall (the first thing it hit). But, the person behind the wall will probably be ok, so long as they’re far enough behind the wall. The bullet, much lighter and faster, is far more likely to go straight through the wall–losing some speed, but retaining more on the far side of the wall than the cannon ball. The bullet has a far better chance of hitting the person.

Alpha particles, the cannon balls, can be stopped by a single sheet of paper. Smash! Likewise, the dead outer layer of skin does a damn good job of protecting your living cells from alpha particles. Beta particles, the bullets, go right through paper. A thin sheet of aluminum, or something of similar density and substance, will gobble these up.

Gamma radiation is trickier. Gamma radiation is just a freakishly high energy version of light, with almost no substance. Just like light can pass right through your hand, gamma radiation can pass through all but the heaviest and densest of metals, wreaking havoc deep into the body.

Gamma radiation is the most likely to cause your body misery. Eating an alpha emitter? Not so smart, as your gut takes the big hit rather than the dead layer of skin cells. Beta emitters can cause quite a bit of damage. But it’s gamma rays, passing right into your depths with ease, that really cause misery.

And, just to be even scarier, the really scary part:

Okay, okay. It’s actually a fun article. They all are. Thanks, Science.

Updates: I have added links to installments in the series that were published after this post.

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