Though I work at a nuclear power plant where our end goal is to make electricity, I hope my writings can show you some of the many ways nuclear technology positively impacts your life. Take, for example, some strawberries I recently enjoyed as my post-dinner dessert. Did you know that strawberry season ends in June in Georgia? Thanks to a nuclear process, food irradiation, I can enjoy my strawberries for several more weeks before they develop mold.
Gamma or x-ray irradiation of food is very similar to microwaving your food but with different energy wavelengths that are designed to kill bacteria and parasites rather than heat the food. This process is a safe way to get rid of bacteria and other undesirables in the food we’re going to eat and it can be used to extend shelf life. I know that using the words “irradiation” and “food” in the same sentence can make some people wary. If you’re one of those people, it might surprise you to learn that irradiation of food has been studied since the concept was introduced in 1904 and was patented nearly 100 years ago! It has a long history of careful study to support its use, and you don’t have to just take my word for it. Food irradiation is supported by many credible organizations including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Medical Association (AMA), and Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
So at this point you may be wondering exactly how this unusual-sounding process works. Irradiation of food means that food is exposed to a predetermined amount of radiation during the packaging process. You know that boiling water sterilizes it. Here, rather than heat, the radiation applied is what sterilizes the food by killing the germs in it. Irradiating food is the same concept as when you get an x-ray of a potentially broken bone; a controlled amount of radiation is applied for a specific purpose. That’s really all there is to it. Irradiating food does not cause the food to become radioactive. Some foods we eat every day, like bananas and peanut butter (or potato chips on the less healthy end of the spectrum), are “naturally radioactive” and have some radioactive atoms within them, though this has nothing to do with food irradiation. Many people get the two concepts confused. Let me set your mind at ease: each of us has some amount of radioactive atoms inside our bodies and it is a necessary part of the way the world works. Some foods are radioactive and that is not something to worry about! Bananas are still good for you.
If the concept of food irradiation sounds interesting, I hope you’re asking yourself, “How can technology like this change the world?” If we apply our research in advanced technologies, we can solve many problems. Although I can leave my strawberries in the fridge and eat them when I choose to instead of right when I buy them, this is just the start of what irradiating food does for us. Where irradiation application makes a real difference is in an area where a pest (like a fruit fly or a beetle) is destroying large swaths of crops, or where a bacteria is contaminating the food for a region. If that’s the food you depend upon for survival, you can’t afford to lose some of it to disease. Irradiation saves a lot of food from being wasted, solving these types of problems around the world every day.
Sometimes when people hear the word “nuclear,” they first associate it with something bad. My goal is to help you understand that nuclear technology has so much more to offer, and that it should not be frightening. Whether it’s making electricity or safely removing the danger of disease from food around the world, nuclear makes a big difference in our lives. Stay tuned for my next post featuring some exciting updates on what “big” things are going on right here at Plant Vogtle Units 3 & 4!