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I need the help of a scientist with writing my book about nuclear

  1. Aug 1, 2014 #1
    I'm currently writing a book about a nuclear epidemic and it came to my attention that I know nothing about nuclear...

    Let's say radiation existed as a mere 2% of the atmosphere in a certain location, would it be possible to say all those 'infected' with the radiation in the atmosphere would die between the moment they ingested radiation and 15 years later?

    So my question is - as a scientist would that plot line make your ears bleed, forcing you to throw the book out the nearest window?

    Does it make ANY sense?

    Thanks very much in advance.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 1, 2014 #2


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    Well first of all, nuclear is an adjective, not a noun. When people receive a radiation dose, we say they are exposed. If people come in contact with radioactive material which stays on or in their body, this causes them to be continuously exposed and we call this contamination.

    If 2% of the atoms of the atmosphere were radioactive, all life on earth would be destroyed within a day. 2% is a stupendous concentration of radioactive material.

    It would help if you described an outline of your plot. That way we could devise a plausible scenario to fit your story.
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2014
  4. Aug 1, 2014 #3


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    Does your scenario involve something about nuclear warfare? During the cold war, there was an idea of using a special type of nuclear weapon called a "salted bomb", which produces an extra amount of long-lasting radiation. An area around where the bomb was detonated would be uninhabitable for many years, even decades. It was feared that if large numbers of salted bombs being used worldwide could cause the destruction of human civilization (making cities uninhabitable and farmland hopelessly contaminated).

    I'm not sure what process could cause the atmosphere itself, everywhere, to become radioactive. The LD/50 for acute radiation poisoning is around 300 rem.
  5. Aug 1, 2014 #4
    Yes the idea would be that all of earth would be destroyed from radiation apart from a small area, in which a certain amount of radiation would kill people within 15 years. But being a writer and not a scientist I am clueless as to whether it is appropriate.
  6. Aug 1, 2014 #5


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    Have you read On the Beach?
  7. Aug 1, 2014 #6
    I haven't, no. Don't tell me it is of that plot?
  8. Aug 1, 2014 #7


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    Yes. There were two movies based on the book you could watch as well to get inspiration.
  9. Aug 1, 2014 #8
    I'll give it a read.

    Thanks for the help, I'll be sure to write of QuantumPion in the novel's acknowledgements.
  10. Aug 1, 2014 #9


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    Whoa, first of all, you really need to learn what radiation is, how it works, where it comes from, etc. Here are a few links to help you:

    To start with, radiation in this context is the term for ionizing radiation, which is high energy electromagnetic radiation or high velocity particles. These are typically generated from the decay of the radioactive isotopes of elements, such as cesium-137 or uranium-235. So to have radiation you need to have radioactive isotopes present in the environment. It is these isotopes which are ingested by people, not the radiation itself. Ingestion of radioactive materials is typically much more dangerous than being exposed externally because clothing and skin can block alpha and beta particles, keeping them from damaging your cells. Alpha radiation is especially dangerous when it occurs inside your body, as the emitted alpha particles are heavily charged and can easily ionize a lot of material inside your cells before they are stopped and neutralized.

    As for your plot, it's plausible that survivors would live for about 15 years, but there would be a massive amount of health problems for the population. Rates of cancer, birth defects, and other diseases would be high. The population might not be sustainable under these conditions.
  11. Aug 2, 2014 #10


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    You may also want to read what LD50 is. There is no such thing as "people will die in 15 years". Some will die faster, some will die later.
  12. Aug 3, 2014 #11
    Yes, but it was specified as "all die in 15 years". So 50 % die much sooner than 15 years, and the surviving 50 % all die within the rest of 15 years.

    On The Beach was popular, but this does not mean it was plausible.

    It is hard to make 2 % of atmosphere radioactive without causing rapid death by fire rather than radiation, because the two elements that make up most atmosphere are nitrogen and oxygen and neither has long lived radioisotopes. Nitrogen 13 has halflife 10 minutes, oxygen 15 less than 2 minutes.

    Would radioactivity in the atmosphere be radiated through skin, ingested, inhaled or absorbed through skin?

    Among inert gases, Ne longest lived radioactive isotope Ne-24 has half-life 3 minutes;
    Ar has Ar-39, half-life 269 years and Ar-42, half-life 33 years
    Kr has Kr-81, half-life 230 000 years, and Kr-85, half-life 11 years
    Xe has Xe-127, half-life 36 days
    Rn has Rn-226, half-life 3,8 days.
  13. Aug 5, 2014 #12
  14. Aug 5, 2014 #13


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    I don't think the OP actually wants 2% of the atmospheric gasses to become radioactive isotopes. I think he just wants a set up where by there is widespread general contamination of a high enough level to cause extinction over several years. And for the purposes of a novel I don't think the exact details are necessary, he just wants to know if such a situation is technically plausible.
  15. Aug 5, 2014 #14

    Yes exactly
  16. Aug 5, 2014 #15
  17. Aug 5, 2014 #16

    And about how radiation would be exposed - I think ingested. Does it matter how it's exposed?
  18. Aug 7, 2014 #17
    I explained that all radioactive isotopes of nitrogen and oxygen are short lived.
    So if you release them into atmosphere, they quickly decay, and heat the air. If you replace 2 % of air with radioactive nitrogen or oxygen, it heats to millions of degrees.

    Inert gases are not easily ingested - sure, they are swallowed with air and then burped out. But they are not incorporated in biomolecules, and have low solubility in water, so only traces get in body.

    Two common and non-inert, but fairly volatile, radioisotopes are T (half-life 12 years) and C-14 (half-life 5600 years). And these both can be ingested with food and drink.
  19. Aug 8, 2014 #18
    Ok thankyou for the information
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