For a long time now, I’ve referred to microwaving as “nuking” food. That is, of course, wrong. There is no characteristic splitting or combining of atoms as with nuclear power. Instead, microwave ovens use microwave radiation to heat up food by causing the fat, sugar, and water molecules in the food to vibrate faster.

Speaking of radiation, the FDA has green-lighted using radiation on spinach and lettuce to kill germs.

FDA Allows Produce to be Zapped With Radiation to Kill Food-Poisoning Germs

The government will allow food producers to start zapping fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce with just enough radiation to kill E. coli and other dangerous germs, a key safety move amid increasing outbreaks from raw produce.

Irradiated meat has been around for years, particularly ground beef. But food companies long worried that zapping leafy greens with X-rays or other means of radiation would leave them limp.

The Food and Drug Administration has determined that modern irradiation techniques kill food-poisoning germs without compromising the safety or nutrient value of raw spinach and lettuce. Its new rule takes effect Friday.

Radiation!I think irradiating foods like lettuce, spinach, and meat is an excellent idea. I like the idea of killing off any nasty little germs and parasites inside my food before I eat it. But the practice of irradiating food seems to expose people’s ignorance and fear of radiation.

Recently I was in a posh grocery store and saw a four-pack of mangosteens imported from Southeast Asia. It was the first time I had seen mangosteens in the U.S., but the asking price of $15 for four fruits was higher than I was willing to pay. I was surprised that they had even made it into the U.S. I remember looking for them in the ’90s, but fears of bringing in Asian pests like the fruit fly had prevented their import. But as I held the package of mangosteens, I noticed a little label that stated it had been irradiated. That would certainly eliminate the threat of fruit flies.

Next to me stood another customer talking with the grocery manager about the mangosteens. He agreed with me that the fruit seemed to be pretty light, and we both wondered if they were old and dried out. The grocery manager opened up the package and said, “Great, now I’ve released some radiation.”

BZZZT! Wrong!

Irradiated foods do not become radioactive themselves. Food is irradiated with shallow penetrating electrons or with deeper penetrating gamma or x-rays. While these techniques will kill living organisms down to viruses, none of them will make the irradiated food itself radioactive, any more than shining a flashlight on some cherries will make them glow on their own later.

You could make food radioactive by bombarding it with neutrons, but food is not processed that way. Doing so would be, to use a technical term, really dumb. Almost as dumb as believing that commercially irradiated foods become radioactive, or believing that radioactivity behaves like a gas trapped in a plastic container, or believing that a microwave actually nukes food. Almost, but not quite.

Another common radioactivity misconception centers on the dangers of radon. Radon is one of the noble gases like helium and neon, only radioactive. There are many public service announcements on the radio warning about the dangers of radon gas, and radon is listed as the second leading cause of lung cancer. But the truth is that radon isn’t dangerous by itself. As a gas, you breathe it in and out, and as long as it remains radon, it will do no harm to you. But the problem is that radon doesn’t remain radon. If you have the bad luck of breathing in an atom of radon that decays into polonium inside your lung, you are in trouble. From then on, as the polonium decays into other elements over the next four days, your lung will get zapped by alpha and beta radiation. And it is that cumulative radiation that will give you lung cancer.

So to be precise, it’s not radon that is dangerous, but the results of radon decaying that is the killer. However, that’s like saying it’s not guns that kill, but the bullets the guns shoot. I doubt I’ll ever hear a PSA about the dangers of radon, explaining that it’s the resulting decay chain that is dangerous rather than the radon itself, since it would take too long to explain in a 30 second radio spot.

Another common misconception about radiation has to do with the depleted uranium often used in military rounds. People have picked up the misconception that depleted uranium is horribly radioactive, but 238U isn’t all that radioactive. Compared to the four-day half-life of radon’s dangerous isotope, 222Rn and the 35 millisecond half-life of 218Rn, the 4.5 billion year half-life of 238U is as close to “forever” as people are likely to experience in their lives. A 4.5 billion year half-life is practically not radioactive at all.

“Oh, yeah? Well what about the trace amounts of 235U in depleted uranium rounds? It’s more reactive than 238U.” While it’s true that 235U has a shorter half-life than 238U, its half-life is still 700 million years. As Steven Den Beste wrote, “You’re talking about processes which are so slow that within the scope of a human lifetime they’re indistinguishable from ‘stop’.” I’ve heard people rant about the horrible radiation the U.S. forces have unleashed on the poor Iraqi people with two waves of depleted uranium ammunition during the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the truth is that you get more radioactivity from hugging your spouse than from hugging a similar-sized block of 238U. Den Beste does a masterful job of educating the ignorant about the nature of depleted uranium here and here.

But depleted uranium is dangerous because of heavy metal poisoning. Just like mercury, lead, and plutonium, uranium can be absorbed by the body, but that has nothing to do with radioactivity since it is a simple chemical process. While uranium can oxidize quickly if it burns, the result is a very heavy powder that would be unlikely to be breathed in, though it is possible. If someone tries to tell you that our use of depleted uranium in Iraq has lead to hundreds, thousands, or millions of deformed babies, ask them about the lack of deformed babies born in Kuwait since the Gulf War. After all, the vast majority of depleted uranium used in the Gulf War was fired in Kuwait. As we draw close to two decades later, Kuwait isn’t the hell-hole of depleted uranium horror that the blame-America-first types would have you believe Iraq is becoming. But facts have little effect when talking with some people. No amount of education can sway a mind that is made up and refuses to look at the facts.

It says something about the state of American education and of knee-jerk activism these days that so many people have so many misconceptions about radiation. It is sad, but more than that, it is dangerous–because people burdened by misconceptions make bad decisions, and that can contribute to a food supply that’s more likely to be tainted and dangerous, not less.

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to tell Iran to stop enriching uranium, or it will be forced to tell them to stop again:

The U.N. Security Council unanimously voted Saturday to impose additional sanctions against Iran for its refusal to stop enriching uranium, a move intended to show Tehran that defiance will leave it increasingly isolated.

Iran immediately rejected the sanctions and said it had no intention of suspending its enrichment program, prompting the United States to warn of even tougher penalties.

And to prove that they are on the complete up-and-up about their uranium enrichment plans, Iran announced that they would limit their cooperation with the U.N. nuclear watchdog organization, and they would press on with their enrichment activities without cease.

Oh yeah, the U.N. Security Council has really put the fear of the U.N. into Iran. I think it’s time for the U.N. to bring out the big guns.

 The Big Guns Misfire

Back in summer of 2003, Bob Novak wrote an article that really chapped the Democrats’ hide. In it, Novak tied together Joseph Wilson’s trip to Niger with Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, and her job at the CIA.

Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me Wilson’s wife suggested sending him to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him.

Howls of outrage from the Left! Wilson called for Karl Rove to be handcuffed and frog-marched out of the White House for revealing his wife’s position at the CIA. Heads must roll! Interestingly enough, Novak wrote the column in July, but it wasn’t until months later that Wilson started to freak out about the article. I thought then that was an interesting delay, and I still do. This affair led to a special prosecutor being called to investigate. Three years later, there has been only one arrest: that of Lewis “Scooter” Libby on charges of perjury. That’s three years and millions of taxpayer dollars well spent, huh?

So who actually named Valerie Plame to Novak? We now know that it was Richard Armitage, then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s number 2 man in the State Department, who blabbed this information to Novak. Michael Isikoff wrote of Armitage in his recent Newsweek article:

Armitage, a well-known gossip who loves to dish and receive juicy tidbits about Washington characters, apparently hadn’t thought through the possible implications of telling Novak about Plame’s identity. “I’m afraid I may be the guy that caused this whole thing,” he later told Carl Ford Jr., State’s intelligence chief. Ford says Armitage admitted to him that he had “slipped up” and told Novak more than he should have.

Oops! Well, no harm, no foul, right? Right. Go ask Scooter Libby how he feels about Armitage’s blabbing, since Libby is the only one whose feet are in the fire over the issue. I find it interesting that three years of investigation never turned up who really told Novak about Valerie Plame. Here’s a relevant paragraph from a Washington Post article from today:

It follows that one of the most sensational charges leveled against the Bush White House — that it orchestrated the leak of Ms. Plame’s identity to ruin her career and thus punish Mr. Wilson — is untrue. The partisan clamor that followed the raising of that allegation by Mr. Wilson in the summer of 2003 led to the appointment of a special prosecutor, a costly and prolonged investigation, and the indictment of Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, on charges of perjury. All of that might have been avoided had Mr. Armitage’s identity been known three years ago.

Ah, but his identity was known! From Isikoff’s article: “Powell, Armitage and [the State Department's legal adviser William Howard Taft IV], the only three officials at the State Department who knew the story, never breathed a word of it publicly and Armitage’s role remained secret.” And since this whole affair has been a political punching-bag for the White House for years, why did these three people remain mysteriously quiet? They could have spoken up at any time to bring this over-hyped and over-inflated scandal to a swift end–and as members of the Bush administration, they should have spoken up. But they didn’t, apparently preferring to let Scooter Libby twist in the wind. For this reason alone, I am glad that Colin Powell is no longer Secretary of State.

But Powell, Armitage, and Taft are not the only people to blame in this affair. Special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald spent three years investigating this crap, and the only indictment was against Libby for lying under oath. That lying, if it actually occurred, was a direct result of Fitzgerald’s investigation. If there had been no investigation, no perjury would have occurred. So here’s how I look at Fitzgerald’s handling of the Plame investigation: either he knew about Armitage, and still chose to hound the White House for three years, making him guilty of malfeasance; or he spent three years investigating the issue and never turned up Armitage’s name, making him guilty of ineptitude. So which is it, Fitzgerald? Are you guilty of malfeasance or ineptitude?

So let’s sum things up. There was no plot to reveal Valerie Plame’s name, nor her job at the CIA. Her name was not revealed to punish Wilson. The White House didn’t conspire to cover up anything. And Wilson’s claim that Iraq didn’t go to Africa seeking uranium has also been proven false.

President Bush should publicly chastize Powell, Armitage, and Taft for staying silent (for shame!), and just as publicly pardon Libby for being embroiled in this whole lame Plame blame.

On July 31th, 2006, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution telling Iran to cease and desist enriching uranium for their “peaceful” needs. Iran promptly told them to take a long walk off a short pier. Here is how this was written up at Fox News:

The U.N. Security Council passed a weakened resolution Monday giving Iran until Aug. 31 to suspend uranium enrichment or face the threat of economic and diplomatic sanctions.

Iran immediately rejected the council action, saying it would only make negotiations more difficult concerning a package of incentives offered in June for it to suspend enrichment.

“All along it has been the persistence of some to draw arbitrary red lines and deadlines that has closed the door to any compromise,” said Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Javad Zarif. “This tendency has single-handedly blocked success and in most cases killed proposals in their infancy.

“This approach will not lead to any productive outcome and in fact it can only exacerbate the situation.”

Oh, yeah. Let’s not exacerbate the problem by telling Iran to stop enriching uranium. Let’s do some nuanced diplomacy to resolve this problem. Of the 15 members on the U.N. Security Council, only one voted against this resolution: Qatar.

Explaining his “no” vote, Qatar’s U.N. Ambassador Nassir Al-Nasser said that while the demands of the six nations were legitimate, the resolution will only exacerbate tensions in the region and Iran should be given more time to respond.

“We do not agree with the tabling of this resolution at a time when our region is in flames,” Al-Nasser said. “We see no harm in waiting for a few days to exhaust all possible means and in order to identify the real intentions of Iran.”

So as long as other issues are happening in the Middle East, Iran gets to press on with uranium enrichment, the pursuit of “peaceful” nuclear power, and — make no mistake — plans for developing nuclear weapons. Ignoring Iran to focus on Hezbollah is like saying you can’t do anything about the burning home while there is a savage pit bull in the neighbor’s front yard.

But here’s the real kicker of the resolution: if Iran doesn’t suspend uranium enrichment by August 31st, they face the horrors of the U.N. Security Council holding another meeting to discuss what to do. “You stop what you’re doing, or we’re going to hold a meeting!” I’m sure they are shaking in their turbans in Tehran. All this resolution shows is just how useless the United Nations truly is.

The following are the first four paragraphs from Christopher Hitchens’ post on Slate.com titled, “Wowie Zahawie.” The subtitle is “Sorry everyone, but Iraq did go uranium shopping in Niger.”

In the late 1980s, the Iraqi representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency—Iraq’s senior public envoy for nuclear matters, in effect—was a man named Wissam al-Zahawie. After the Kuwait war in 1991, when Rolf Ekeus arrived in Baghdad to begin the inspection and disarmament work of UNSCOM, he was greeted by Zahawie, who told him in a bitter manner that “now that you have come to take away our assets,” the two men could no longer be friends. (They had known each other in earlier incarnations at the United Nations in New York.)

At a later 1995 U.N. special session on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Zahawie was the Iraqi delegate and spoke heatedly about the urgent need to counterbalance Israel’s nuclear capacity. At the time, most democratic countries did not have full diplomatic relations with Saddam’s regime, and there were few fully accredited Iraqi ambassadors overseas, Iraq’s interests often being represented by the genocidal Islamist government of Sudan (incidentally, yet another example of collusion between “secular” Baathists and the fundamentalists who were sheltering Osama Bin Laden). There was one exception—an Iraqi “window” into the world of open diplomacy—namely the mutual recognition between the Baathist regime and the Vatican. To this very important and sensitive post in Rome, Zahawie was appointed in 1997, holding the job of Saddam’s ambassador to the Holy See until 2000. Those who knew him at that time remember a man much given to anti-Jewish tirades, with a standing ticket for Wagner performances at Bayreuth. (Actually, as a fan of Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung in particular, I find I can live with this. Hitler secretly preferred sickly kitsch like Franz Lehar.)

In February 1999, Zahawie left his Vatican office for a few days and paid an official visit to Niger, a country known for absolutely nothing except its vast deposits of uranium ore. It was from Niger that Iraq had originally acquired uranium in 1981, as confirmed in the Duelfer Report. In order to take the Joseph Wilson view of this Baathist ambassadorial initiative, you have to be able to believe that Saddam Hussein’s long-term main man on nuclear issues was in Niger to talk about something other than the obvious. Italian intelligence (which first noticed the Zahawie trip from Rome) found it difficult to take this view and alerted French intelligence (which has better contacts in West Africa and a stronger interest in nuclear questions). In due time, the French tipped off the British, who in their cousinly way conveyed the suggestive information to Washington. As everyone now knows, the disclosure appeared in watered-down and secondhand form in the president’s State of the Union address in January 2003.

If the above was all that was known, it would surely be universally agreed that no responsible American administration could have overlooked such an amazingly sinister pattern. Given the past Iraqi record of surreptitious dealing, cheating of inspectors, concealment of sites and caches, and declared ambition to equip the technicians referred to openly in the Baathist press as “nuclear mujahideen,” one could scarcely operate on the presumption of innocence.

So, Zahawie either talked about uranium ore, or he talked about goats. Take your pick. But people who are convinced that “Bush lied – people died” won’t care about this drum that has been beat upon before.