Positive Effects of Nuclear Radiation: Explained

National Geographic has announced that the ARC Centre for Coral Reef Studies has surveyed the 1.2-mile crater from the hydrogen bomb tests at Bikini Atoll and discovered something phenomenal: the corals are bouncing back from nuclear annihilation.

Image from Ze Eduardo on Flickr

How is this even possible? The first round of tests there sank 13 warships the U.S. Navy itself wanted to get rid of after World War II. Radiation is poison to every living thing. What could have possibly happened?

As it happens, radiation may not be the end of the world after all. How bad is radiation, really?

First there’s this news out of Chernobyl–the surrounding ecosystems are thriving, and, while the enthusiasm is tempered, I’ll reprint the key quote here:

“By any measure of ecological function these ecosystems seem to be operating normally,” Morris told Nature. “The biodiversity is higher there than before the accident.” How has this happened, given that radiation levels are still too high for humans to return safely? Morris thinks that many of the organisms mutated by the fallout have died, leaving behind those that have not suffered problems with growth and reproduction. “It’s evolution on steroids.

That only explains the ability of nature to make up for man’s complete screw-ups, however. Edward Calabrese, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, claims that radiation may fall into a concept called hormesis: poisons that are lethal at high doses, are beneficial in low ones. Calabrese has spent his career studying the concept, and universally found that low doses of toxins lead to longer lifespans and enhanced growth– as well as that high doses kill.

So what does this mean for radiation? The “allowable” dose of radiation in the 1920s was 700 mSvs (Milliservs), then 70 in 1941, and 20 in 1990. It’s possible that we’re missing out on major advantages through this restriction, because the science would support a J-shaped curve representing danger from radiation, instead of the simple threshold suggested.

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