Our Bodies Defences
People imagine that radiation damage is an irreversible process which our body cannot recover from. However, this is largely untrue. Our bodies can easily recover from low-dose radiation and it does so all the time.
Yes, radiation can and does damage the DNA in some of our cells. But this is typically not anything to be concerned about. We have mechanisms to repair damaged cells. Cells with significant DNA damage will typically not divide. Or the cell will simply die and not divide.
If many cells die, then inflammation occurs and the body sweeps away the dead cells and repairs the affected tissue. This is what happens when you get a sunburn.
Yes, it is possible for high doses of radiation to overwhelm our cells defences. This can lead to serious illness, permanent organ damage or cancerous cells. This usually occurs at far greater radiation doses than received by working at a nuclear power plant or living near one.
People seem to believe that radiation exposure can cause the kind of mutations known in Spider-Man or the X-Men! That is not the kind of mutations radiation causes. It causes mutations which are more likely to impede the viability of cells or in the worst-case scenario, lead to cancer.
High doses of radiation can kill cells, cause organ failure and then immediate death. But this kind of extremely high-dose radiation is not usually what workers at nuclear facilities would need to worry about if there was an incident.
They are far more likely to be exposed to lower doses of radiation that increase the risk of cancer by minuscule amounts.
So, no, workers at nuclear power plants should not worry about being mutated. Or under normal conditions, having high doses of radiation damaging their organs. Their bodies can protect them against lower doses of radiation.
The most they should worry about is a slightly increased cancer risk. But studies show it is not a significantly higher risk and some studies suggest there is no increased risk!
From all of this, we can conclude that typical exposure from nuclear power plants is very safe. Whether you work at these plants or merely live nearby, nuclear power plants are not going to expose you to significant radiation doses.
The radiation doses from your environment, your own body and technology are all greater than nuclear power production exposes people to. And yet all of these represent tiny doses.
Our bodies can protect us from the effects of such tiny doses and prevent the effects of radioactive exposure. It requires very high doses of radiation for there to be any serious or long-lasting effects to our bodies from radioactivity. Such exposures are not typical.
But surely such exposures are possible? After all, we have seen three major nuclear power plant accidents so far. Surely, they prove that nuclear power plants are highly dangerous?
In the next part of this series we will see that even in the event of major accidents, nuclear power has an amazing track record of safety.
But what we have already seen should indicate that this is safe technology. As a result, we should have no fear of the normal operations of nuclear power plants.