The Japanese utility company that owns the tsunami-crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, confirmed last week that a cumulative 20 trillion to 40 trillion becquerels of radioactive tritium may have leaked into the Pacific ocean since the disaster.
Forty trillion becquerels sounds like doomsday is indeed near; but what the heck is a becquerel? To those without a physics degree or those worried about oil spills, the word “barrel” may come to mind — and 20 trillion barrels sounds devastating. (For the record, a becquerel is the standard measure for a unit of radioactivity, corresponding to one disintegration per second.)
But Tim Worstall at Forbes.com hopes to put things in perspective by giving us a more easily understandable idea of just how much radiation has been leaked. He does so by using a rubric most of us know and love: bananas. The radiation leakage from the plant, according to his math, appears to be about the same as that from 76 million bananas.
Worstall starts by calculating the potassium of bananas, since some portion of potassium is always radioactive.
A typical banana contains about half a gram of potassium, and will thus have an activity of roughly 15 becquerels. By figuring the total radiation spill at a rate of 1,141,552,511 becquerels per hour, he figures that the radiation leak is running at the equivalent of 76 million bananas per hour, or just under half the exposure caused by the global consumption of bananas.
Worstall writes, “I really don’t think that half the radiation of the world’s banana crop being diluted into the Pacific Ocean is all that much to worry about.”
“You can worry about it if you want, but it’s not something that’s likely to have any real measurable effect on anyone or anything,” he concludes.
But for those directly involved, radiation is still radiation, and no amount of math is going to solve the problem.