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The Terror Of Increased Radiation From Fracking Sites



There are times when the editor of a newspaper really should just tell people to bugger off. That their claims aren’t worthy of repetition and that, if they insist on trying to get something into the paper then we’re going to trash those claims as we put it in.

This does not, you will be surprised to find out, happen enough. As here with claims about increased radiation from fracking.

The base idea is fine scientifically. There is radiation underground, all that uranium and thorium does decay and some of the decay products are radioactive themselves. Diggin’ stuff up with release some/more of them into the atmosphere and so there will be more radiation downwind as a result of racking. The mechanism exists and is true that is:

The radioactivity of airborne particles increases significantly downwind of fracking sites in the US, a study has found.

The Harvard scientists said this could damage the health of people living in nearby communities and that further research was needed to understand how to stop the release of the radioactive elements from under the ground.

The radioactivity rose by 40% compared with the background level in the most affected sites. The increase will be higher for people living closer than 20km to the fracking sites, which was the closest distance that could be assessed with the available data.

All of that is fine. Well, except for the damage to health bit. Because the important question here is “How much?”. Standing inside a nuclear reactor while it’s on is definitely dangerous to your health. Even putting aside XKCD’s point that you’d get shot before you get there. Standing outside a nuclear reactor might indeed lead to greater absorption of radiation but as Ed Teller was fond of pointing out, a couple smooching against the containment wall – on the outside, obviously – will gain more exposure from the K-40 in each of their bloodstreams than they will from the reactor.

So, we’ve got a rise of up to 40% – and the “up to” is important – of background. How much is that?

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has estimated that the average background dose to the
people living near the proposed site of the Yucca Mountain Repository in Amargosa Valley, Nye
County, Nevada, is slightly above the U.S. average at 400 mrem/year EDE.

No, don’t worry about what the units are.

As a means of comparison, DOE notes that there are people living in the northeast region of Washington State who could be receiving 1,700 mrem/year EDE from background radiation

OK, so a 40% rise from 400 is to 560, yet we don’t worry about NE Washington at 1700. Therefore this higher level resulting from fracking is true but irrelevant.

Which means we don’t need to publish the study, do we? Or, if we’re going to, we should make fun of it. What’s the one thing The Guardian doesn’t do? Make fun of it.



  1. I did like the study which pointed out that cancer rates were higher the lower you got. Despite the higher cosmic ray dosage in the mountains. The article suggested that the much greater mutagenic effects of oxygen vastly overwhelmed any effects of the radiation.

    Of course the earth was much more radioactive when life evolved, so it has adapted to low doses of radiation. In fact there’s evidence to suggest that mild doses of radiation are beneficial. Certainly the somewhat higher radiation levels of spas don’t seem to have affected their traditional reputation as being good for your health.

  2. I used to work as a physicist early in my career, and I can state categorically that PV doesn’t work without radiation and that all wind power exists as a result of radiation.

    It’s wonderful how slippy words like “radiation” can be.

  3. We can’t (even if we wanted to) build nuclear plant in Cornwall or Aberdeenshire, because the natural background means that every worker would exceed their annual permitted dosage without entering the plant.

  4. After the Fukushima incident the Italian government recalled much of its diplomatic staff back to Rome, where background radiations levels are higher than in either Tokyo or Fukushima itself.

  5. When the Windscale reactors at Sellafield came to the end of their lives, a source of electricity had to be found. They invested in gasfired generating plant. But, it had to be built outside the compound as it released more radiation than the whole of the Sellafield site.

  6. The Banana Equivalent Dose is something that should be more widely known and used whenever there is an article on radiation.


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in British English
expunct (ɪkˈspʌŋkt)
VERB (transitive)
1. to delete or erase; blot out; obliterate
2. to wipe out or destroy

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