He grabbed a chunk of reddish rock from beside the road and held it to his Geiger counter. Sure enough, ionizing gas set off the counter's pulsing clatter. Jay smiled broadly, slipped the rock into his pocket, and we headed off downriver.
Later that day, Jay pulled the Geiger counter out again, this time in an antique store in Ouray. In his hand was a beautiful, pale green dinner plate. Sure enough, the plate set the Geiger counter to clacking. "Uranium has been used for thousands of years to add color to glass," he said. "The Egyptians were doing it three thousand years ago."
Jay bought the plate to add to his growing collection.
I have two cousins they happen to be brothers who know a great deal about radiation, both as a naturally occurring phenomenon and as a man-made conundrum. Jay teaches high school physics in Santa Fe. David is vice president for environmental management for Kaiser-Hill, the company that just finished cleaning up the massively polluted Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility south of Boulder. Both cousins have a rare appreciation for the invisible workings of radioactivity, and both share a frustration with society's current fear of nuclear energy.
Jay is the kind of restless scientist who can't be satisfied with received or second-hand knowledge. Intrigued with the 1970s resurgence of wood burning for home heating (inspired at least in part by that era's oil crisis), it wasn't enough for Jay simply to buy an air-tight stove and use it, he had to test dozens of stoves in a laboratory and then write a book about it.
(In the late 1960s, Jay reigned as World Frisbee Champion. The winner each year excelled in a quartet of events: distance, accuracy, time aloft and a brutal mano-a-mano contest called "guts." Winning the overall title was fun, but typical of Jay, it wasn't enough. What happened to a disk's aerodynamics, he wondered, when it stopped spinning? What would its flight then look like? And how would one go about finding out? So, Jay set up a movie camera on a cliff hundreds of feet above the Pacific and flung disk after disk into space hoping to find out.)
Jay's collection of radiation memorabilia is mostly about "the history of public attitudes on radiation." For the first 20 or 30 years following Marie Curie's discovery of radium in 1898, "people thought that radiation could cure anything. Now, things have swung so far the other way, some people believe that a single radioactive atom will make them sick."
In mid-century came the horrors (largely abstract in the American consciousness) of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Jay has a raft of comic books from the era, in which kryptonite and other super rocks, fictional and real, are able to effect super transformations, for good or evil.
From the 1950s and 60s (when uranium mining in Colorado and Utah was at its peak), Jay has objects like "Atomic Perfume" in a mushroom cloud-shaped glass bottle. And salt-and-pepper shakers in the shape of little atomic bombs.
The era of Cold War ambivalence or obliviousness, or black humor, or all three often brings to my mind the Atomic Motel in Grand Junction with its decaying stucco walls and once-proud neon sign depicting whirling electron orbits around an unstable uranium nucleus. What was this stuff so tiny we'd never be able to see that small or count numbers that high? Local economic boom? Planetary comic-book doom?
The thing Jay wants to get across to his students is to be quantitative as opposed to emotional about the risks of radiation. To that end, he tells them about the millirem, the standard American measure for the effect of radiation on a body. (The radioactive content of soil, for example, or of Jay's Vanadium rock, is measured in picocuries. That's the measure David uses when talking about the trace amounts of radioactivity left in the soil at Rocky Flats, which is about to become a National Wildlife Refuge. The millirem, on the other hand, is "a unit of absorbed radiation dose.")
Our bodies absorb an average of about one millirem a day just from being alive on earth. In Colorado, because the air is thinner, we absorb between 300 and 400 millirems/year in solar radiation. At sea level, the number is closer to 200-250 millirems a year. You add a millirem to your total watching TV over the course of a year or from wearing a luminous-dial watch. We get an extra millirem for every hour we spend up in an airplane. One dental x-ray adds the equivalent of one millirem per day for a year. We even absorb radiation from other people. Every human body contains billions of atoms of radioactive potassium 40, which "shines" out of us. Six months of sleeping next to someone in bed (eight hours per night) will add one millirem to your total.
Staying indoors seven extra days a year adds a millirem, thanks to radon in buildings. Living for 30 years in a house that is two feet higher than your neighbor's house will add a millirem, thanks to the increased solar.
If Coloradans receive double the background radiation that sea level folks get, do we die sooner, or have more deformed babies? No. In fact, Jay says, "Nobody has any idea how risky one millirem is. It's not even measurable." Ten thousand millirems is measurable. A body that absorbs an extra 10,000 millirems faces a one-half to one-percent increased chance of getting cancer. We, all of us, have about a 25 percent chance of developing cancer. Add 10,000 millirems of radiation to your system and you have a 26 percent chance.
Victims of Chernobyl (about 24,000 of them) received an estimated 45,000 extra millirems from what is the only real power plant disaster we know of. Our own Three Mile Island incident in 1979 was never in the same league. Across the river from the cooling towers in Goldsboro, Pennsylvania, leaked radiation peaked at 20-25 millirems/year, then quickly dropped to less than one millirem/year.
Some genius number cruncher figured out that statistically one millirem of radiation reduces life expectancy by 1.2 minutes. Jay likes to challenge his students to come up with equivalent risks. Some of the non-radioactive perils the kids came up with (equal to one millirem): crossing the street five times; taking one puff on a cigarette; being overweight by .0007 ounce; driving five miles.
Jay points out that by law a nuclear power plant cannot subject its workers (let alone the nearby public) to more than five millirems per year, an amount equal to one sixtieth of one medical x-ray or one round trip flight, Denver to L.A. And yet "for the last decade or two nuclear power generation (which produces 80-85 percent of the electricity in France, for example, and emits zero greenhouse gases) hasn't even been on the table in this country."
And given what we know now about global warming and the burning of fossil fuels, that's a super shame.
Part 2, Chernobyl This, will run in Friday's edition of The Watch.