The Radioactive Danger of Natural GasPosted on December 5th, 2010 No comments
All radioactive dangers aren’t created equal, or at least they aren’t in terms of the stories the media reports and those it ignores. For example, the recent tritium gas leak at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant was a major news story. There’s nothing wrong with that. Tritium is radioactive and carcinogenic, and the amount leaked through two cracked underground pipes represented a potentially serious public health hazard. Fortunately, the sources of the leaking gas were found before the radioactive gas could contaminate the local drinking water. However, there are other sources of radioactive danger. They are potentially a great deal more dangerous than the leaks at Vermont Yankee, but not as sensational, because they’re not associated with the nuclear boogeyman. As a result they don’t lend themselves to the striking of heroic poses by those who have appointed themselves our environmental saviors, and are therefore ignored.
A case in point is the potential radioactive hazard of drilling for natural gas. It’s been known for more than a year that wastewater from gas drilling in New York’s Marcellus shale (hattip Atomic Insights) has been coming up laced with something more dangerous than organic hydrocarbons; namely, radium. According to ProPublica,
The information comes from New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which analyzed 13 samples of wastewater brought thousands of feet to the surface from drilling and found that they contain levels of radium-226, a derivative of uranium, as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink.
There happens to be a difference between radium and tritium in the type of radiation they emit. Both are dangerous, but tritium emits a relatively low energy (average 5.7 thousand electron volts, or keV) electron, or beta particle. When radium decays, however, it emits a much heavier helium nucleus (two protons and two neutrons), or alpha particle, carrying nearly a thousand times more energy (4.871 million electron volts, or MeV). The good news is that alpha particles have a much shorter range. They can’t penetrate your skin. The bad news is that, once they get in the body (for example, if you drink radium-laced water) that short range becomes a liability. All the alpha particle’s energy is again dumped in a very short distance, but not in dead skin tissue. Instead, it causes massive damage to living cells.
Radium is problematic for another reason. It is chemically similar to calcium, and is therefore a “bone seeker,” where it accumulates over time. What happens next was experienced by the “radium girls,” young women hired to paint a “glow-in-the-dark” radium compound on watch dials over a period of about ten years starting in 1917. Many of them later died of various forms of cancer. As I’ve pointed out earlier on this blog, tons of uranium and thorium, also emitters of powerful alpha particles, are released directly into the atmosphere every year from the burning of coal.
I point these things out, not because I’m fundamentally opposed to the use of gas, coal, or any other energy source. It is highly unlikely that any of the ones commonly in use today are anywhere near as hazardous as a lack of electric power would be. As noted by Carl from Chicago at Chicago Boyz, who knows whereof he speaks, we may find that out to our cost in the not-to-distant future if shortsighted policies of blocking the building of all new generating capacity continue unchanged. Rather, I point them out because of the basic truth that there is no way to produce the energy we need that is environmentally benign. That basic truth applies to solar, wind, and other “alternative” energy sources just as it does to coal, nuclear and gas. It would be well if the media provided us with the information we need to make rational choices, rather than limiting itself to providing environmentalist poseurs with a handy source of propaganda.
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