I am on holiday today and trying to demonstrate to family and friends that engineers have social skills too, contrary to Dilbert’s view on the social skills of engineers, see http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2013-11-19/
When we lived in the USA, I remember seeing billboards along the Interstate with messages from FEMA telling us ‘Be Ready’, to prepare, to plan, and to stay informed. I was never quite sure what we were meant to be ready for since we lived in rural Michigan where we were fortunate not to experience violent weather and to be far from industrial plants that might explode and shower us with chemicals or radiation. The billboard advertised the FEMA website [www.ready.gov] which contains very little factual information about radiation but does imply you should seek shelter in the basement of tall buildings in the event of a nuclear accident. Some commentators have suggested that the psychological effects arising from fear of nuclear radiation can cause more health issues than the dosage received especially for those not in the immediate vicinity of an incident. So, knowing more about radiation in advance of an incident would be helpful and might also dispel many of the fears that cause opposition to nuclear energy.
So, does sheltering in a basement offer reasonable protection? Well, radiation is produced when radioactive materials decay and their atoms release protons and neutrons from their nucleus plus some of the electrons that orbit the nucleus. The protons and neutrons cluster together to form alpha particles (actually Helium nucleii) that are relatively massive and can stopped by a sheet of paper. The electrons, known as beta radiation, whizz out at high-speed but can be stopped by a thin sheet of Aluminium. High-energy photons are also released with the electrons and are known as Gamma radiation, which requires a sheet of lead or a considerable thickness of concrete to stop them.
So sheltering in the basement is a good idea especially if the building above contains a substantial amount of concrete.
David Ropeik, Fear vs. radiation: The mismatch, in the International New York Times, Tuesday October 22, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/22/opinion/fear-vs-radiation-the-mismatch.html?_r=0