Answer to Question #11563 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"
Category: Environmental and Background Radiation
The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:
Should I worry about higher background radiation in the next three years? I've read some scary threads on the Internet.
Given the vast amount of misinformation about radiation on the web and in the media, it's no wonder that you are concerned. But the fact is that reports of increased background radiation are incorrect—there is no reason to expect that background radiation has increased recently or will increase in coming years.
Normal background radiation varies, sometimes widely, from place to place and even from season to season. For more information on environmental background radiation, see the Health Physics Society's fact sheet at http://hps.org/documents/environmental_radiation_fact_sheet.pdf.
Many websites and bloggers are just plain wrong about background radiation levels. For example, I know of one website that compares measurements made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to "normal" background levels measured by an instrument called a Digilert 100. It's not clear from the instrument manufacturer's website, but these "normal" levels may be instrument background readings, which are not the same as environmental background radiation levels. Furthermore, this is most certainly not the same instrument used by the EPA for their measurements. So the website is comparing apples to oranges, and the comparison is misleading.
Perhaps you have been reading scary reports about radiation releases from the Fukushima nuclear reactor accident in Japan. For accurate information on Fukushima releases, please see the Health Physics Society's frequently asked questions at http://hps.org/publicinformation/ate/faqs/thefukushimaaccident.html and at http://hps.org/publicinformation/ate/faqs/radiationnuclearpower.html.
Or maybe you have read about an accident at the U.S. Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Accurate information on this accident is available at http://www.wipp.energy.gov/wipprecovery/accident_desc.html. The investigation reports indicate that radioactive materials released from WIPP were a tiny fraction of background radioactivity, so small that the resulting doses to the public would not be measurable.
Rest assured that U.S. and international regulatory agencies enforce strict limits on the amount of radioactive materials that nuclear facilities can release—limits that are fully protective of the workers and the public. Radioactive releases from these facilities would not be large enough to affect background radiation levels.
Linnea Wahl, CHP