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Radiation Visible

If you think about nuclear energy, you’re bound to run into a lot of anti-nuclear chatter. Most of it is exceptionally dumbbell in nature, uninformed and trying to gin up fear where there need be no fear. It’s the kind of thing that cable news thrives on – about everything, not just nuclear energy – so trolls of various kinds will always find work, as long as they are presentable.

But occasionally, you run into something that has at least some value – maybe not a lot but some.

Consider this:

One in three Americans lives within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant (MSNBC) that routinely releases radioactive poisons (EPA) into the environment, but there are no public health alerts when these invisible poisons are released into our air and water and the utility companies are only required to make annual reports on their averaged quarterly emissions.

Well, okay, that’s dumbbell writ large.

The page is devoted to the idea of adding a dye to radiation to make it visible and for you to sign a petition demanding it:

The three methods proposed to MAKE RADIATION VISIBLE, are highly achievable at a low relative cost. The safety factors for nuclear preparedness and public health and safety far outweigh the nominal costs: [CAPS theirs]

The caveat: if radiation could be dyed, it would be dyed. Visible radiation would be very handy, though the safety of nuclear energy plants is really the least of it. Locating radon – aiding all kinds of radiological medical procedures – helping industries that work with radioactive materials. If someone could make it work, it would represent a potential financial bonanza. If it hasn’t been done, you can be sure it’s because the nature of radiation does not make it plausible.

Indeed, that’s the case. Atoms being very tiny – and excited atoms (hence radioactive) not being conducive to anything attaching to them – any dye that could be applied would be so miniscule as to be invisible itself. And no dye could get close enough to an atom to adhere to it, even if it could be seen.

Never say never, of course, but this one’s a non-starter.

But -

It is an intriguing idea. And it is being looked into, sort of, under the guise of scintillating nanocompositors, which sounds like Robin Williams’ Mork from Ork on a tear. These live largely in the realm of theory, but hold real potential. Instead of coloring radiation, they cause areas where radiation is present to glow. It sounds rather spooky (or groovy, if you have a collection of black light posters), but for detecting the presence of radioactivity they could be a boon.

To read about scintillating nanocompositors is to run into a lot of this (from an abstract):

The use of light emitting nanoparticles in polymer and glass matrices was studied for the detection of radiation. These nanocomposite scintillators were produced by various approaches including quantum dot/polymer, fluoride nanophosphor/epoxy and halide nanophosphor containing glass-ceramic composites. The synthesis and characterization of these nanoparticles as well as their incorporation into composites is discussed. Further, the application of these composites for radiation detection and spectroscopy is described.

So, yeah, it’s at this stage. The government is looking at it too, primarily as an non-proliferation tool. This is from Los Alamos:

New scintillator materials are in high demand to assist in non-proliferation and counter-proliferation.

One application for these materials includes the protection of borders and ports from the introduction of nuclear materials. In order to create a new class of scintillator materials that combines good energy resolution, large size and low cost, we have developed a large-scale synthesis of narrowly size-distributed <10nm cerium-doped lanthanum halide nanoparticles, Ce:LaX3, where X = F or Br.

It goes on like that. This is from 2007, so doubtless the project is much further along now. (I did find more recent articles, so work continues, but these are good representatives.) The idea behind scintillating nanocompositors, if it can be made to work, could have exactly the applicability of dyed radiation – but better, because it can make all radiation visible, both to head off danger and to enhance life saving technologies. Nuclear energy plants are really the least of it.

Here’s the thing, though: anti-nuclear activists often assume that industry and government are so casual (or greedy or evil) about public safety that recklessly wiping out swaths of the population is as nothing to them. But there are loads of incentives, not to mention scientific curiosity, to make things safer – and better – and more effective. Dying radiation may not be a very good idea – it’s not very viable, in any case – but if you have to sign a petition, do it to encourage scintillating nanocompositors. That’s where the action is.

Much thanks to Jerry Hiatt, NEI’s senior project manager, radiation safety and environmental protection, who helped considerably with this post.


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