Me and Pico – Nuclear Power and Scare Stories

(Post by Meredith Angwin)

Me and pico

Pico is the metric term for one-trillionth. That’s ten-to-the- minus twelve, or one-thousandth of a billionth. In other words, it takes one thousand pico-meters to equal one billionth of a meter.

But of course I am not talking about meters. I’m talking about radiation here. There’s almost nothing else that you can measure in picos. One gram of radium releases one curie of radiation. Radiation limits of various sorts (tritium or strontium 90 in water) are generally expressed as pico-curies.

Trillionths of a curie. Why do we measure them as trillionths of a curie? Why don’t we just measure them as parts-per-trillion of water, or as grams of material? Basically, such measurements are just not practical. We can’t measure grams-per-liter effectively at the trillionth level. A pico is just too small.

In my working life as a chemist, I was once involved in trying to find a possible water contaminant at the parts per billion level. I worked with a lab that specialized in ultra-pure water. I was a friend with the founder of that lab, Marjorie Balazs. When you are trying to measure something at low parts per billion levels, everything gets in the way of getting a decent measurement. For example, ions will cling to the side of the flask, and the flask may be shedding parts per million of other ions. In short, measuring the ion content of ultra-pure water (measuring individual ions at the parts per billion level) is a field of highly specialized expertise.

Below the parts per billion level, it is even harder to measure the presence of most ions. Measuring parts per trillion is close to impossible (though not impossible). However, if the ion is radioactive, it is relatively easy to measure very low levels of the material. You can measure parts per billion and smaller. There’s that “pico” term again. You can measure pico curie levels.

The ease of measuring radiation makes it easy to scare people with the “fact” that radioactive ions are present. If a radioactive ion is present, you can find it easily. At very low levels.

Scare stories and people

A set of anti-nuclear organizations has put together a set of scare-story videos about nuclear energy. David Ropeik has written an article about these videos: Naive Anti-Nuclear Videos Demonstrate the Danger of Thinking with Our Hearts, Not Our Brains. These videos appeal to our emotions and our fears.

These videos are pretty much what you would expect: the anti-nuclear video contains lots of buzzing noises, and has a lying and condescending man “explaining” the situation. It even admits some positive things about nuclear (the material coming out of the cooling towers is steam, not carbon dioxide) but says these things in a nasty manner, as if they weren’t really true.

These videos make for effective propaganda. Radiation is constantly referred to in emotional terms. Radioactivity glows and pulsates. The assumed future (if nuclear energy is used) is very frightening. They don’t say how much radiation is present in their various scenarios: they just say “radiation.” In one part of the video, the needle on the radiation measurement meter goes from “low” to “holy crap!!” (I am not making this up, just like I am not making up an article that claims “most people” in North America would be killed by radiation if anything bad happened at Columbia Generating Station.)

“Low” (no numbers) leads directly to “Holy Crap!!” Indeed. The implication is that any amount of radiation is a huge and dangerous problem. No “picos” in these videos.

But the lack of numbers isn’t the real problem. Ropeik describes the ways that people have strong motivations to fit in with their group. If their group says radiation is unacceptable, then they will agree that it is unacceptable. The purpose of the anti-nuclear video is to encourage people to agree that radiation is unacceptable. The people making this video don’t have to prove this; they just show frightening images. After all, most of us are just “getting through” most aspects of our lives. We are more comfortable when we believe what our group believes, and we don’t have time or willingness to investigate everything.

Scare stories and pico

We can measure extremely low levels of radiation, far more easily than we can measure low levels of other substances. Unfortunately, this leads to easy attacks by people whose groups are against nuclear energy. They found radiation in the water! It must be a terrible problem!

I understand that this is just an example of groupthink. However, if we could measure in the parts per billion range easily for other substances, perhaps we wouldn’t drink any water at all. Most natural water on this earth has urea in it, at some level. And often even worse things. But we can’t detect them. Radiation … we can detect it at the trillionth level. Pico. Pico measures of radiation lead to reinforcement of the “unacceptability” of nuclear energy.

Talking to real people

Following Ropeik’s lead, however, we can hope to realize that this is a fight about values, not picos. Pro-nuclear people value clean air and small footprints and abundant energy. Anti-nuclear people might say they value some (only some) of the same things, but they place other goals at a higher level. Their values often include moving the world toward an imagined rural utopia of low energy use.

Actually, low energy use scenarios are more likely to be dystopias, especially in rural areas. Before abundant fossil energy was available for farming, farm labor was backbreaking, travel of over ten miles was nearly impossible, and rural health care was extremely poor. (Think of the energy requirements of a modern hospital and ambulance services that can reach twenty miles for sick or injured people.)

So, ultimately, it isn’t about picos. Trillionths of anything shouldn’t be scary, but this is hard to explain to people. Instead, pro-nuclear people can stress the health and happiness and flexibility of a high-energy society. This will be more effective than talking about pico-curies.

Stressing the importance of a small footprint (not every stream with its mini-dam, not every hill with a wind farm) can also be effective. People don’t want to hear about picos. They want to hear about having a safe and healthy life on a healthy planet.

6 thoughts on “Me and Pico – Nuclear Power and Scare Stories

  1. Big numbers scare much of the public, and this is one of our biggest hurdles to overcome. Me and Pico…catchy and relatively apprehensible to the layperson. This is great stuff Meredith…Ab-Fab, in fact.


  2. Unfortunately, fear sells, and most of us on the technical/scientific side are averse to using it. But it may be forced upon us, and as much of a disadvantage it is to play in your opponent’s ballpark, there are times that we have to do it. So when I do, I take the approach suggested above, wherein the downside risks of an energy-poor, dystopian future are fully laid out. The dam-in-every-stream and windmill-on-every hill leads to a vastly degraded and unpleasant natural environment. A lifestyle with limited energy, which in this country was the case even just a century ago, was one of hardship and menial labor, one in which you died at a relatively young age, one in three of your children would die in childhood, little or no educational opportunities, and little chance of your offspring enjoying a better life than the one you have. Diseases that are cured today with an easy visit to a doctor would likely be fatal to those unfortunate enough to contract them. Famine and hunger were commonplace and more the norm than the exception. Travel to other parts of the country, much less to other countries, was generally restricted to the ultra-wealthy or those serving in the military. The common thread in the advancement of a society is the availability of energy at reasonable cost and on demand. Nuclear provides that. Unreliable (intermittent) sources don’t.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Then there’s always the great XKCD Radiation chart…

    But, sadly, for some there’s always going to be only two quantities as far as radiation goes…

    None, and “OMFG, we’re all gonna die.” And there’s little you can do as far as educating them otherwise.


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