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Updated October 1st, 2002
Understanding Radioactivity
By Bruce Beach - Radiological Scientific Officer
survival@webpal.org

Kinds of Radiation Detectors

Official Government Detector Instructions

My explanation of detectors - with pictures

How to build a KFM (START with THESE Instructions as of March/2013)

Cresson Kearney's Instructions from Nuclear War Survival Skills

There are many misunderstandings among the general public about radioactivity. In Russia (and some other countries) every school child receives several weeks of scientifically correct education on the subject for the purpose of survival. The North American policy has been to leave people in ignorance. Worse yet, special interest groups spread their hysteria from the one extreme to the other. The military (government) says, "Don't worry about it - we will protect you - we just need more money for more and better weapons". At the other extreme, there are environmentalists who say - "It is all bad and unsurvivable - and there should not even be nuclear power plants or the radiation of food".

Other countries provide fallout shelters and radiation detection equipment for their populations. China, Russia, and some other countries claim that they have a spot for every member of their population. Some like Switzerland and Sweden have two or three spots for every person, in case they would happen to be away from home at work or school. There are a number of countries, like Israel, that have for years required that every new building include a fallout shelter. But in North America there is no requirement to have shelters and I believe the reason is because unlike with missiles and weapons, there is no way large corporations can centrally mass produce fallout shelters and make a buck. Consequently, there has been no effective lobby for shelters. If they could have been mass produced on an assembly line then it would have been a law that everyone had to have one.

There are always two aspects to warfare. The sword and the shield. Today, nuclear weapons are the sword. Fallout shelters are the shield. The Defense Department is misnamed. It is really the Destruction Department. It only has the sword. For the North American populaton there has been provided no shield (defense).

Instead, the US and Canada have closed the public shelters that they had. They have taken down the signs and destroyed the supplies. Your survival has been left up to you. Consequently, you need to understand about nuclear weapons and nuclear radiation if you are going to survive it.

There are three free books on this web site that will give you very practical information. They are described at the book link and it would be well for you to read the two simpler ones, "You Will Survive Doomsday", and "11 Steps to Survival", before you need the knowledge. When that time comes you won't have time for reading a book.

The following is technical information about radioactivity. On another page I give you information about radiation detection equipment and how to use it.

Radiation Measurements

Radioactivity is measured in:

    • curie
    • sievert
    • becquerel
    • coulomb/kilogram (C/kg)
    • gray
    • rad
    • rem
    • roentgen (R)
Each of the above measurments can be prefaced with any one of the following:

    • T tera 10 to the 12th
    • G giga 10 to the 9th
    • M mega 10 to the sixth
    • k kilo 10 to the 3rd
    • c centi 10 to the minus 2nd
    • m milli 10 to the minus 3rd
    • micro 10 to the minus 6th
    • n nano 10 to the minus 9th
Which works out to sixty four different measurements that you can come across in reading literature about radioactivity. I have conversion tables where I can convert from one type of measurement to another, but most people do not want to be bothered with that kind of detail. When we say that something is ten to some power it simply means that number to be fully written out - needs that number of zeroes after it. If it is a minus or negative power then it means that there is a decimal point and that many zeroes before the number.

You need only to understand one basic concept about these numbers. The only one of the prefixes that you have to be concerned with is the milli (m) prefix. If you run into the others just figure that it is a scientific discussion and not of real use to you. But the milli one is important. Because it can be dangerous. It is often used - and as far as nuclear war survival defense it is usually a misuse.

The milli means that the measurement is one thousandth (1,000th) of what you are concerned about. The problem is that you may find dosimeters that measure in milliroengtens or rate meters that measure only in milliroentgens. These are peace time standards and are useless to you. Five hundred (500) milliroentgens is only one-half of a roentgen. Later, when we look at the significance of rates or doses, you will see how insignificant that is. In peace time literature and nuclear accident reporting you will find references to milliroentgens and these may seem to be very high numbers. In actuality, by war standards, they are practically insignificant. These kind of numbers scare people witless if they have not stopped long enough to understand what is being explained here.

Now as to the measurements themselves. The first four (curie, sievert, becquerel, coulomb/kilogram (C/kg) ) are scientific measures used to measure the age and strength of a radiation source and do not really concern you. If you run into them, find another source of information that uses terms that are meaningful for you.

The next four measurements, (gray, rad, rem, roentgen (R)), have subtle differences of meaning to scientists in the field - but for your purposes are all equivalent. These measures are used for measuring both rate and dosage. What you have to comprehend now - is the significance of various levels of rate and dosage.

Radiation Strength and Dosage

In North America we measure radioactivity in R (which can mean roentgen, rad or rem for our purposes). In Germany and some other places they use Grays. Still amounts to the same thing. We are really only going to concern ourselves with dosage as measured by a dosimeter. The R rating on a rate meter will tell you how much of that dosage you will get in an hour from the radiation source that you are measuring. So memorize the following table - and you know all that you really need to know to figure out the danger or how seriously someone has been exposed.

There are greatly varying opinions about the dangers of radioactivity. Many of them generated by hysterical individuals with no scientific background in the subject. For a substantial recent study on the subject read the following article.

The peace time danger from radioactivity has been GREATLY exaggerated. The very real war time threat which is much more serious has been GREATLY ignored. My hope is, that as a result of what you learn here, you will largely ignore the peace time concerns and concentrate on the war time threat. I will concede that humanity's use of nuclear energy for power generation is immoral when we have not developed a practical disposal system for the waste. However, there are other more pressing immoral problems facing humanity which threaten it with its extinction and nuclear war is foremost among these.

The following is interpreted from attached "official" and other "expert" sources. These sources often provide a 'range' for effects, but I have simplified this to a single number to make the table easier to memorize - and you should memorize it. You can then 'extrapolate' for your self the relative severity of effects of a number between a higher and lower number.

    • 600R -- means 100% chance of fatality is expected. Some much earlier - but last within two weeks.

    • 400R -- means 50% will die within one to three weeks. Those that don't die are going to be VERY sick and wish that they would. After a few days some may feel better but will often then turn, sicken and die in a few weeks.

    • 200R -- lots of sickness, and radiation sickness is pretty terrible (Think of cancer treatment without pain killers.) Lots of vomiting - hair falling out - and all that. Not nice

    • 50R -- No fatalities at this level. There is a difference of opinion, as to whether the sickness at this level is physical. Some think, as for example in this very authoritative study, that at this level the sickness is psychosomatic. Whatever its cause it is very general.

    • 30R -- Most everyone will feel some sickness - - maybe just "punky" and it may be "just" psychomatic but it certainly would not be beneficial for children and pregnant mothers. Even this level is a thousand times higher than the maximum general population exposure permitted under peacetime standards.

In the final analysis, fatality is probabilistic, somewhat like car accident fatalities. There have been cases of people getting very much higher radiation and surviving, and others with much lower who have not. Cause and effect become clouded when working with probability issues. There are many impinging factors, such as age, health, medical care, or lack of medical care.

More Things to Learn About Radiation

You can download

my free booklet about nuclear survival

A few of the many things that it is good to know about radiation that are explained there are:

Here are twenty-three myths that are repeatedly heard (some much more often than others) that I try to dispel in my booklet -
YOU Will Survive Doomsday
  • MYTH #01: Almost everyone will suddenly be killed on doomsday.

  • MYTH #02: Most people would be quickly killed by the bomb blasts, thermal radiation, or radioactivity.

  • MYTH #03: You can build an adequate shelter in your basement.

  • MYTH #04: You must filter the air coming into a shelter to remove the fallout.

  • MYTH #05: Water would become radioactive.

  • MYTH #06: There would be no dangerous radioactivity after a couple of weeks.

  • MYTH #07: Radiation sickness is not contagious so there is no danger in assisting those affected.

  • MYTH #08: Food exposed to radiation becomes radioactive and is therefore not edible.

  • MYTH #09: If you have a special radiation suit (like you see in the movies and on TV) you will be protected from the radiation.

  • MYTH #10: New crops of food grown in future years will not be radioactive.

  • <MYTH #11: There is no such thing as a fallout pill. For up to date information on this - look at the KI4U link on each page.

  • MYTH #12: There is a fallout pill that will protect you from all radioactivity.

  • MYTH #13: There would be dangerous radioactivity for thousands of years.

  • MYTH #14: There would be no dangerous radioactivity after a couple of years.

  • MYTH #15: You are prepared if you have a two weeks emergency supply of food stored.

  • MYTH #16: You should be prepared to be self-sufficient and be able to survive on your own.

  • MYTH #17: Any survivors would have to live the rest of their lives underground.

  • MYTH #18: Life after doomsday won't be worth living.

  • MYTH #19: You need not make any preparation because you are either going to die in the holocaust or be saved (religious connotation).

  • MYTH #20: The bombs today are so large and there are so many they will destroy the world.

  • MYTH #21: You will receive adequate warning from your government.

  • MYTH #22: You will receive no warning, and there is no hope if you do.

  • MYTH #23: One of the primary targets will be nuclear power plants.


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