Stephen Colbert tries to scare us off perfectly safe nuclear wine

Illustration for article titled Stephen Colbert tries to scare us off perfectly safe nuclear wine
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The Fukushima disaster in 2011 is one of the most damaging nuclear crises in history, the result of an earthquake that begot a tidal wave that crashed into a nuclear plant. It resulted in significant loss of life, as well as contamination of water, seafood, rubble, and, per the New York Times, radioactive wild fuckin’ boars. Terrifying. What’s not terrifying? That Fukushima radioactive signature are now being found in California wines. Honestly. It’s fine.

No, really, for real, it’s fine, y’all. Here’s the reassuring Times headline:

Illustration for article titled Stephen Colbert tries to scare us off perfectly safe nuclear wine

A new study from a French research center notes that 18 bottles of rosé and cabernet sauvignon from California were tested, all from later than 2009. The bottles, ah, bottled after Fukishima showed an increase in radioactive particles (in the cabernet bottles, the level was doubled). Per NYT:

Ingesting cesium-137 [the man-made radioactive isotope] can result in an elevated risk for cancer, but the level of radioactive material from Fukushima in food and drink in countries outside Japan has been too low to result in a health hazard, according to the World Health Organization.

(A cool side-note: the levels of radioactivity have been used to identify fraudulent bottles of wine. Wines that have cesium-137 couldn’t have existed before the mid-1900s.)

Anyway, Stephen Colbert returned to his roots last night, and used his very best, Colbert Report ThreatDown voice to scare you off California wines. Presumably this is in hopes of keeping it all for himself. We’re onto you, Colbert.

Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!

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Cayde-6's Unloaded Dice

Okay everyone. Nuclear engineer here.

This is a bunch of overblown nonsense. When they say “too low to result in a health hazard,” let me illustrate just how low that risk is: remember the “radioactive tuna” panic in the year after earthquake? Yeah, it turns out you would have to eat 20 servings of the most highly contaminated bluefin tuna to get the same radioactive dose as you would from eating a normal banana.

So here’s the crux, right here:

Mr. Pravikoff said the California bottles had radioactive levels so low that the researchers had to use a special technique to measure them: burning the wine to ashes.

The reason they had to burn the wine down to ashes is because of an event known as “self-shielding,” wherein a volume of material that contains a radioisotope is so large, a statistically significant amount of that radiation is absorbed before it leaves. Now, if they were measuring for Cesium-137, they would be detecting gamma rays (photons). Gamma rays are the hardest particles to stop, since they have no charge, and no mass. All of the elements in a bottle of wine are lighter elements, which are poor at shielding gamma rays. Water, the main component, is especially poor at it. The endpoint that I’m getting to here is that there was so little radioactivity in said bottles that they had to remove the glass and water in order to be able to accurately measure the radiation levels to a usable degree of accuracy. I would encourage everyone to open the paper itself (link here: and look at Figure 1. It plots Cesium 137 activity of wines bottled around nuclear incidents. Compare the barely perceptible hump of the Fukushima date to both Cold War nuclear testing, and even Chernobyl. The other I want to point out is the units of the graph. The units that they use are mBq/L. That is, milliBecquerels per liter. For reference, a Becquerel is 1 radioactive decay per second. If you notice, the highest point on Figure 1's graph is a startling 2,500 milliBeqcuerels per liter of wine. Or to put it in other words, the most heavily contaminated bottle of wine studied had a maximum radioactivity of TWO AND A HALF radioactive decays per second per liter of wine. And that was at the time of bottling.

All of this, these dumbass headlines (pointing fingers at the NYT and Colbert), come from reporters and entertainers not knowing a damn thing about radiation and isotopes, and furthermore, not bothering to learn.

Here’s a fun sidenote: that Cesium-137 test that they use to detect fraudulent wines and artwork? It’s getting less and less useful because we’re not putting any more Cs-137 into the environment. Eventually that, and other radioisotope tests, will be useless.