The Beginning of my Nuclear Education

In 1999, during a lesson about energy and ecology in my high school Biology class (in Atlanta) I was taught that nuclear energy was intrinsically dangerous and hazardous to the environment. I went home that day incredibly upset and confronted my Dad, a Nuclear Engineer, about all of the horrible things he had been doing at work and voiced my disappointment in his choice of career. My Dad didnt say anything, he just listened. The next day he went to Georgia Tech and borrowed a Geiger Counter. When I came home from school that afternoon, he had assembled a number of everyday items on the kitchen table. He explained that radiation is all around us and showed me that some things in our home have measureable amounts of radioactivity. I remember one item was a lantern mantel (which contained thorium at that time), which pegged the meter. He asked if I would like to go and investigate a nuclear power plant so that I could report back to my class with more information about nuclear energy and radiation.

That weekend we drove up to the Oconee Power Station in South Carolina, Geiger Counter in hand, to measure the radiation levels at the plant. During the drive, my Dad discussed all the measures that utilities take to protect workers, the public, and the environment from the radiation inside the reactor.  He told me about the r-squared effect, and that I could expect to find the highest radiation measurements nearest the containment building, and it would decline exponentially the further away we went.

This was before the September 11th attacks, and I was able to get really close to the structures, and my research was enthusiastically supported by the staff at the Oconee Power Station (they have a great Visitors Center if you ever have a chance to visit). We took readings at three distances starting near the containment building, then moving outward. We did the same thing at the spent fuel storage facility. The measurements were really, really low near the facilities and declined rapidly as we moved away from each building.  On the closest public road to site, the radiation level was the same as the background reading far from the site.

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