By Roger Witherspoon
The Journal News (Westchester County, NY)
April 2, 2002 Tuesday
The Journal News
There is no escape from radiation.
It's in coffee and cocoa. It's in sunlight. It's in the air in our homes, in our bodies, on
the ground, in hospitals and spun off from the nuclear fission process used to
Most radiation is harmless, and useful. Radio waves are harnessed to transmit sound
ranging from music to fetal heartbeats. Microwaves show astronomers the age of the
universe and heat food in the home. X-rays can pass through cells, providing
physicians with images of the human interior, or tear apart diseased cells for cancer
But it is the more dangerous form of radiation - from plutonium, a dangerous, highly
radioactive substance produced in nuclear reactions like those at the Indian Point
power plants in Buchanan - that has raised fears among residents within 50 miles of
the plants, including those in New York City, ever since the plants became viewed as
a potential terrorist target after Sept. 11.
Those fears gained new momentum this month, when the Department of Energy
announced plans to truck thousands of tons of spent fuel from Indian Point through
local roads, before heading to a proposed national repository in Nevada.
Plutonium produces enormous amounts of radioactive particles, which are weak and
can be blocked by a shirt-sleeve. But if they are ingested or inhaled, their radioactive
emissions will destroy critical body tissues, stirring fears about low-level radiation
from accidental and planned discharges of small quantities of radioactive gas or
water from Indian Point.
Yet, experts say, there is little to worry about, because very little low-level radiation
escapes from the plant.
"If you are at the plant fence and stood there all year, the radiation you would get
from Indian Point would be less than a third of the average background radiation for
that area," said Jason Jang, a health physicist with the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission. "You would get more radiation if you sat a year at Bear Mountain
because of the sunlight and the radiation emitted from the rocks."
Jang said the amount of radioactivity in the steam that escaped into the environment
after a tube failure at one of the plants Feb. 15, 2000, was one-eighth of the
radiation exposure from an X-ray. "They couldn't detect it at the plant fence," he
About 1,000 air, water, and soil samples are taken at Indian Point annually to test
for traces of radioactivity emanating from the plants. Water, used to cool the steam
or control the reactor, is strained to remove radioactive particles before it is
discharged. Air is vented from the containment building after passing through filters.
Each process is monitored and recorded.
Fears about radiation are not limited to Indian Point. Residents in Westchester,
Putnam and Rockland counties for years have been arguing over the safety of the
radiation emitted from cell phone towers and high tension electric wires and
transformers. Studies so far have found no increased incidence of cancer associated
with the presence of microwave towers or the use of cell phones.
"We are exposed to microwave background radiation from the big bang all the time,"
said David Brenner, professor of radiation oncology and public health at Columbia
University. "We are bathed in it."
Radiology experts in government and the private sector concur that because people
are exposed to a wide range of radiation, the human body has adapted to its
presence and its negative affects.
"The people in the Capitol building in Washington get more background radiation
than the rest of us because that building is made of granite, which emits more
radiation than brick," said Dr. Letty Lutzker, chief of nuclear medicine at St.
Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey. "Flying in a plane will give you more
radiation than if you were at sea level, and so will living in Denver.
"Radiation is part of the physical universe," she said. "You can do damage to people
with large amounts of certain types. Small amounts are harmless."
Most radiation is carried by different types of electromagnetic waves. The waves are
characterized by the distance between their peaks, with shorter wavelengths capable
of carrying more energy than longer ones.
Radio waves, at the long end of the spectrum, can have several miles between each
rolling peak. Microwaves, next in the low-energy spectrum, can be harnessed to
provide heat in microwave ovens or sense movement in radar devices. In the center
of the spectrum is light, which carries more heat than the two low-energy waves.
Light waves are found as infrared, visible and ultraviolet.
Ultraviolet light waves are strong enough to affect chromosomes in the skin, causing
sunburn and, in some cases, skin cancer, which is caused when ultraviolet rays bind
parts of the skin's chromosomes together. That is not the case with high-energy
waves, called ionized radiation, which is found in the form of X-rays and gamma
"Ionizing radiation is far more hazardous than other forms," Brenner said. "They
have the ability to tear open chemical bonds inside DNA."
Yet, that happens all the time, usually without problems.
"Every cell in your body has to make 40 to 50 repairs per day because of some
damage from natural radiation," said Tom Hinton, radiation ecologist at the
University of Georgia's Savannah River ecology station. "All living organisms have
evolved their own repair mechanisms and have learned to correct these problems
Ionizing radiation can interfere with that repair process, however, leading to cell
destruction or distortion in the form of cancer.
It is this type of radiation that is the byproduct of the nuclear reactors at Indian
Point. The reactors transform their uranium fuel into a radioactive soup that includes
plutonium, uranium, cesium, iodine and strontium. If released into the atmosphere
through a severe accident or explosion, these different forms of long-lasting radiation
could contaminate the region for centuries.
Ionized radiation also comes in solid form, composed of one or more atomic
particles. These range from large alpha particles, which can be blocked easily, to
neutrons, which can penetrate most materials except water and concrete. That is
why Indian Point has concrete containment buildings with 4.5-foot-thick side walls
and a 3.5-foot-thick dome.
Spent fuel at Indian Point is stored in pools under 23 feet of water.
"There is no difference between the man-made radioactivity and natural
radioactivity," said Jang of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "There is just more
of (the man-made kind) and it is more concentrated.
"So you need to take protective action that you would not have to apply to radiation
occurring naturally and evenly distributed throughout our environment," Jang said.
Reach Roger Witherspoon at email@example.com or 914-696-8566.