## Putting Picos In Perspective

Ever thought about how many zeros there are there in a “pico” something?

Remember back in grade school when we learned the metric system of measures?  We started out with units that are easy to visualize: meters get 1000 times bigger and become kilometers; meters get 1000 times smaller and become millimeters.  We understand these intuitively because we have a frame of reference and can visualize each of those unites of length and distance.  Units of mass are the same way; we know a gram is a small unit of mass – we can hold a gram of almost any material in the palm of our hand.  For example, a penny weighs 2.5 grams. Stack up 400 pennies and you have a kilogram, or 1000 grams.  Cut a thin copper shaving off a penny and you have a milligram, or one 1,000th of a gram.  Again, these are things we can see, and that makes it easier to understand.

As our schooling progressed we learned about very large and very small numbers, exponents, and scientific notation.  We put these principles to use in science and learned there are other units of measure larger than a “kilo” and smaller than a “milli”.  These are harder to visualize because we have to think in terms we can’t see.  For example, the mass of Mount Everest,  is 3E18 grams, or 3 “exa-grams” and the mass of the planet earth is 6×10^24 kg, or 6E27 grams (6,000 “yotta-grams”) (see note below).

On the opposite end of the scale is the prefix “nano” or 1E-9 of a unit. A nanometer is 1E-9 meters, and a nanosecond is 0.000000001 seconds.  I had a hard time visualizing a nano second of time until I learned that it takes about 1 nanosecond for a beam of light to travel one foot.  That kind of puts a nano into perspective, doesn’t it?  The newest computer chips, for example have transistors with a thickness of 45 nanometers!  We can only see things that small with powerful electron microscopes.

A “pico” is even smaller than a “nano” , 1000 times smaller!  “Pico” means there are 12 places behind the decimal point.  Even for a person like me who deals with engineering and science all the time, it can be difficult to visualize a “pico” of something.  A pico is so small that even a million picos is still very small amount. It takes a million, million pico grams to make one gram.  If you have a million pico-curies in a liter of water, it would take one million liters to provide a total of one curie.  To give you a sense of scale, an Olympic sized swimming pool (about 2.5 million liters) filled with water containing one million pico-curies of tritium per liter would hold a total of about 0.3 milligrams of tritium.  Said another way; if I had an olympic swimming pool full of pure water and I sprinkled in 0.0003 grams of tritium (less than the mass of one drop of water), then mixed it up, I would have a mixture containing 1,000,000 picocuries of tritium per liter.

It is very hard to measure anything as small as a nano or pico of anything.  There’s one area where we can: with advances in science, we’ve gained the ability to measure radioactivity in very, very small amounts down to the energy released by single energy particles or beams.  This gives us the ability to quantify radioactive material in extremely small quantities.

Anti-nuclear activists around the country aided by an uninformed media have grabbed on to the issue of tritium leaks at some nuclear plants around the USA, and are using the issue very effectively to create fear and distrust.  Nervous politicians are retreating from positions of outward support for nuclear plants even though the federal government, state agencies, and independent scientists all agree that the leaks pose no threat to public health and safety. The leaks have produced concentrations in special monitoring wells (not drinking water wells) in the range from few hundred to a million or so pico-curies per liter.  As I’ve shown, a million pico-curies per liter may sound like a lot, but in reality it is a tiny, tiny amount.

Every form of energy production has some impact on the environment.  Even wind and solar energy which are viewed by many as environmentally benign, have measurable effects.  The production of solar panels results in highly toxic chemicals, and worn out panels could leach chemicals into water supplies. Wind turbines cause noise pollution, kill bats and migratory birds, and catastrophic blade failures can throw lethal fragments hundreds or even thousands of feet.  Coal plants dump toxins into the land, water, and air, and the radioactive releases from coal plants are hundreds of times higher than allowed by nuclear plants.  Gas power plants emit greenhouse gases and, as we’ve seen in the last week, can and do explode and kill people.  Gas pipeline accidents kill people in the USA every year.

When nuclear plants shut down all the other plants in that market make money – lots of money.  Don’t think for a moment that fact is lost on people who are in the business of selling electricity from natural gas.  The increase in gas demand causes gas prices to rise and that hurts everyone else, except but gas distributors, of course.  I’m also sure this cash bonanza is not lost on politicians who are recipients of donations from coal, oil and gas companies.

It’s time for lawmakers, public service boards, and elected officials to do a reality check.  In the case of tritium in groundwater we’re talking about microscopic amounts of material with ZERO safety impact, and ZERO environmental risk.  Any time a nuclear plant is shut down, forced to reduce power, or delayed in starting up the replacement power has to come from another form of energy, usually natural gas.  When gas demand rises the price goes up and we get higher electricity bills, huge increases air pollution, and further reliance on a volatile, dangerous energy source.

John Wheeler

This Week in Nuclear

2/16/2010 Note: Thank you to a listener who recognized errors in my discussion of the mass of  Mt Everest and planet Earth – my numbers were way too low! After double checking my math, and performing the Earth mass calculation from scratch  (there were errors in my source data) I revised these show notes with the correct values.  I’ll update the audio podcast as soon as I am able.

John

1. #1 by wooshy on February 13, 2010 - 6:44 AM

In other words a gazillionth of nothing is nothing and if this level of radiation was a health risk then the FDA would have to ban bananas and brazil nuts? Most audiences would appreciate a shorter message. My contribution.

2. #2 by John Wheeler on February 13, 2010 - 9:38 AM

“A gazillion of nothing is nothing”

I like it! Thanks!

3. #3 by Soylent on February 15, 2010 - 6:57 AM

The calculation of the mass of Everest you linked to is not correct:

“1 521 386 372 716.335 7 x 1 999.104 182 4
= 3.041409×10^5kg”

Without even looking at the result there is a striking pretense of accuracy; in actuality there might be 2 significant figures, maybe less. The result is just plain crazy; multiplying a trillion something with a thousand something should give a quadrillion something kg which is a quintillion something grams.

3e8 grams is 300 megagrams, not 30 megagrams. A megagram is an easily visualized unit, it is a metric tonne.

The Earth has a mass of 6e24 kg, or 6e27 grams. Chemists and astronomers use CGS(grams), while physicists use SI(kilograms)

4. #4 by G.R.L. Cowan on February 15, 2010 - 9:01 PM

The T levels are absolutely too low to be of genuine concern. But as Wheeler says, the nuclear sector’s loss is the gas interests’ gain.

Unfortunately for them, the radon in the billions of litres per day of gas they would disinter, burn, and dump in our air, if they got to replace Vermont Yankee’s output, turns out to be pretty much as big a concentration of radioactivity as the T in the famous groundwater. Not the same pCi/L, but a pCi of radon is a lot more radioactivity, about 900 times more, than a pCi of tritium.

Still, I guess that’s not a problem if hardly anyone in Vermont knows it, eh?

5. #5 by John Wheeler on February 16, 2010 - 11:07 AM

Soylent – thank you for pointing out my conversion errors and the Earth mass calculation errors in my source.

Please see my updates to the original post and the note in blue.

6. #6 by Lee Popov on February 21, 2010 - 3:09 PM

“Surveying 30 recent nuclear analyses, this paper shows that industry-funded studies appear to fall into conflicts of interest and to illegitimately trim cost data in several main ways. They exclude costs of full-liability insurance, underestimate interest rates and construction times by using “overnight” costs, and overestimate load factors and reactor lifetimes. If these trimmed costs are included, nuclear-generated electricity can be shown roughly 6 times more expensive than most studies claim.”

7. #7 by John on February 26, 2010 - 9:35 PM

“nuclear-generated electricity can be shown roughly 6 times more expensive than most studies ”

6X more than most. Wow, there’s some good solid numbers for you. I won’t say that nuclear industry doesn’t trim data, but I’m pretty sure the renewable lobby does. Colorado is looking at mandating 30% electricity from renewables by 2020. Using roof-top solar as an example, I took a SWAG at an energy storage solution for 12 hours of electricity for Colorado households. It would require a lead-acid battery weighing as much as the Empire State Building and cost \$2 billion. If you want fancy and light go for Li-ion, but it will cost \$23 billion. These storage costs are in addition to the \$76 billion needed to install the solar for all Colorado households. Residential customers represents about 20% of all Colorado electricity use.

Solar cost estimated using: http://www.solar-estimate.org/
Battery weight and cost data provided by Wikipedia

8. #8 by Luke Weston on February 28, 2010 - 11:47 AM

It’s worth pointing out that radioluminescent tritium gunsights typically contain 0.1 Ci of tritium, and those tiny keyring tritium light sources are about the same.

That’s 100,000,000,000 pCi of tritium.

9. #9 by Lee Popov on March 2, 2010 - 11:45 PM

“Wow, there’s some good solid numbers for you.”

You do have some chutzpah, mocking a paper published in the ‘Journal of Science and Engineering Ethics’ by a Notre Dame professor. What’s a guy with a blog and a calculator compared to that?

I suspect you didn’t click on the link. Here’s a direct link to the paper:

It’s only 5 pages long.

I don’t blame you for being partisan (it’s your paycheck and life after all) but I had entertained the hope that you wanted to know the truth, whatever it was. You don’t want me to suspect people in the nuclear industry would rather sweep unpleasant facts under the rug, do you?

Speaking of paychecks, do you get paid to shill, or are you an ordinary engineer or manager of some sort? I seem to recall from one of your podcasts that you work in QA, but I’ve never heard you specifically deny you get paid to promote the industry.

10. #10 by John Wheeler on March 3, 2010 - 8:22 AM

Lee,

The post you refered to above is from “John” a commenter on the blog, not from me (John Wheeler, the producer of the podcast and blog). That said, I feel I should set the record straight for anyone else who might erroneously draw the same conclusion as you.

I am employed by a large nuclear utility and earn a good living doing what I do for them, and that has nothing to do with blogging or podcasting. My work to produce “This Week in Nuclear” is a separate endeavor for which I receive no funding or compensation of any kind from any nuclear industry entity.

No, I don’t get paid to promote the industry. I accept donations via paypal (thank you to a few generous listeners!) , and I earn a few bucks per month on pay per click advertising and through Amazon Affiliates. Sometimes these cover my monthly costs and sometimes they don’t. It is not a money making operation, and that is OK – that is not why I do it.

In the future should a nuclear business entity choose to sponsor the podcast or blog via advertising I would be happy to oblige them. I see no conflict of interest there. After all, the wind energy association, coal lobby, and petroleum companies advertise in the media all the time without anyone complaining.

Regarding my credentials: I have an engineering degree from the US Merchant Marine Academy, plus several years of nuclear education and training provided by the US Navy and accredited industry training programs. I also have about 15 years of “hands on” experience operating various types of reactors and nuclear power plants, and another 15 or so years managing operations, training and other functions at nuclear plants and in nuclear corporate organizations. My education and experience certainly provide me with the academic background and knowledge to provide informed analysis.

John Wheeler

11. #11 by John Wheeler on March 3, 2010 - 9:17 AM

Companies and their lobbies will naturally attempt to describe their product in the most favorable manner and I have no doubt it happens to some extent across the board. For example: Proponents of renewables constantly overstate the contribution wind and solar can make by quoting installed capacities (while ignoring capacity factors) and understating the true societal costs by failing to account for state and federal subsidies and accelerated depreciation schedules & resultant income tax benefits. I have also never seen an analysis of wind or solar decommissioning costs, or any discussion of who will be liable for these future expenses. The Natural Gas Association uses adjectives like “clean” and “home grown” while ignoring tons of CO2 produced by every KW-Hr and the amount of LNG imported from OPEC states.

I won’t dispute the finding in the paper, because that would be a topic for a much longer discourse. However, I noted that several of the sources cited are from authors typically associated with anti-nuclear bias (for example, Makhijani shows up 3 times and Bunyard twice). Also, the estimates of GHGEs from nuclear plants ignore lower emissions that are likely to be achieved by continuing to use weapons stockpiles for electricity production, by fast breeder reactors, and the thorium fuel cycle.

John Wheeler

12. #12 by DocForesight on March 13, 2010 - 6:59 PM

@ John Wheeler – I heard your name mentioned this morning (Sat 3/13/10) on my local KTKZ 1380 AM (Sacramento) radio station. The program was hosted by a small businessman who had asked you about energy usage and generation within California and how that relates to the AB32 rules burdening our already-depressed economy.

The percentage of power produced by just two nuclear plants in Cali is astounding when compared to NatGas and Coal-fired.

13. #13 by Joffan on April 18, 2010 - 9:40 PM

Just in case anyone is taking Lee Popov’s argument from authority seriously, I would point out that the paper he sites is a straight steal from a heavily biased study by Ben Sovacool, which is cited [12] but definitely underacknowledged, pretends that the Oxford Research Group is associated with a university [14] (it isn’t), and cites the notorious van Leeuwen [19].

By contrast the thorough and professional external-costs study undetaken by the EU, ExternE, found that nuclear and hydro are lower in GHG emissions than any other power sources.
http://gabe.web.psi.ch/projects/externe_pol/index.html#res_epol1
detailed chart at p17 in http://www.externe.info/expolwp6.pdf