Nuclear catastrophes, whether from bombs or reactor accidents, are a major source of pseudoscientific concepts. One popular misconception that seems finally to have died out is the idea that nuclear reactors can explode like atomic bombs. This fear was common in the early years of the atomic age but is rarely heard now even from the most ardent critics of nuclear power. In an atomic bomb, the fissionable material (uranium or plutonium) must undergo a chain reaction in a few millionths of a second. Anything slower will allow the fissionable material to melt or fly apart from the intense heat generated before the reaction is complete. To fulfill these conditions, we need a means of getting a critical mass assembled instantly and holding it together against tremendous heat and pressure for a few microseconds - in short, something specifically designed to be an atomic bomb. The requirements for a nuclear explosion are very stringent and all but impossible to achieve by accident.
A related misconception turned up in a TV movie special some years ago. A terrorist had built a basement atom bomb. The hero tried to disarm it but failed. The timer reached zero but the bomb failed to go off. A "bomb expert" advised the hero that the chain reaction had started but would take time to "build up." The hero, knowing he was doomed already by radiation, flew the bomb out to sea in a helicopter before it detonated. No way. The bomb either goes off in microseconds or not at all. Long before a chain reaction could build up to explosive force, the fissionable material would have melted its way through the bomb casing and the critical mass needed to sustain the chain reaction would have fallen apart. A most unhealthy radioactive mess would result, but not a nuclear explosion.
Robert Heinlein's story The Long Watch manages to incorporate most of the popular misconceptions about nuclear warheads and radiation. In the story, 21st century nuclear warheads are controlled by an international peace-keeping agency and kept on a space station. A cabal of officers plots to use the weapons to seize power, but a young lieutenant locks himself in the bomb storage area and dismantles the bombs. By the time the plot is broken, the lieutenant is dead from radiation and his body is returned to Earth in great honor in a lead coffin.
The first flaw has to do with how the lieutenant stops the plot. How do you keep someone from tinkering with a nuclear weapon? The answer is simple. First, you make sure nobody goes near an atomic bomb alone. This is standard practice for the U.S. and probably all the world's other nuclear forces; the guard would simply not admit an unaccompanied person into the storage area, regardless of his rank or security clearance. Second, you put a lock on the bomb to buy time in case someone does obtain unauthorized access and you make sure the people who have access to the bombs don't have easy access to the keys or combinations. It has been rumored that the U.S. allowed information about its locking devices to be leaked to the former Soviet Union. The Russians could hardly unlock and sabotage every one of our weapons, but they could lock their own more securely. The damage we or they would be likely to do by knowing how the other side's locks work is trivial; the damage a lone psychotic could do with an insecure weapon scarcely bears thinking about.
Plutonium is very toxic, and with a half-life of only 24,000 years is a good deal more radioactive than uranium, but most plutonium nuclei give off alpha particles (or helium nuclei) that will not penetrate the skin and only travel a few inches in air. A few plutonium nuclei undergo spontaneous fission and give off neutrons, and it is these particles that Heinlein pictures as killing his hero, but he could hardly have gotten enough radiation in a day or so to be fatal. Heinlein also grossly exaggerates the toxicity of plutonium in his story, as do many anti-nuclear activists. Mere exposure to radiation will not make something radioactive. Neutrons alone of all major types of radiation can interact with atoms to create new, radioactive atoms (the source of fallout and radioactive waste from reactors). Heinlein's lieutenant was only in the bomb vault a day and had to be buried in a lead coffin. The bomb casings and the walls of the bomb vault, exposed to the same radiation for years on end, must be positively lethal.
In fact, Heinlein's melodrama borders on the absurd, but he's not alone. The TV series The F.B.I. once involved pursuing a villain who had been in a nuclear accident and was so radioactive that even a brief encounter was dangerous. He even killed fish in a pond where he stopped to drink! (Water is a fairly good absorber of atomic particles, and fish would probably not be as susceptible to radiation as humans) Anyone bombarded that heavily by neutron radiation would be dead instantly, not running about eluding the F.B.I.
One of the most durable pseudoscientific concepts about radiation is that radiation makes things glow in the dark. Some materials are luminescent; they give off light when hit by energetic radiation like gamma rays, x-rays, or ultraviolet light. Most materials are not luminescent. In many stories of the aftermath of nuclear war, like Arthur C. Clarke's short story The Curse, the bombed areas are pictured as glowing. However, the areas that have already been used for nuclear testing do not show any tendency to phosphoresce.
If radiation can't do these things, then why all the fuss? First, radioactive decay gives off gamma rays, high-energy electromagnetic radiation. These rays can penetrate the body and do damage. Second, any ingested or inhaled radioactive material can cause damage within the body. The real dangers of radiation are serious enough without adding to them for the sake of silly theatric effects.
We have already dealt with a few of the things nuclear weapons cannot do, like altering the Earth's rotation or orbit. It is often said there are enough nuclear warheads to kill every person on Earth several times over. This statement is true. There are enough bullets, knives, chemical poisons and rocks to kill everyone on Earth. Nothing in this discussion should be taken as viewing nuclear war lightly. It would be next to impossible to kill everyone on Earth directly with nuclear weapons. We might, though it's unlikely, kill everyone through fallout. We would lose the Acropolis, Saint Peter's, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, Disneyland and almost everything else the human race has striven to build. Every single person in the industrialized world would lose loved ones. The survivors in the developed world would have to adapt to a far more primitive lifestyle; the survivors in the underdeveloped world would lose all their hopes of future prosperity. Do we really need to embellish this picture with absurd and overblown rhetoric?
Created 8 July 1998, Last Update 02 June 2010
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