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Chernobyl or: How I Learned About Radiation and Stopped Worrying

Uppdaterat: 4 nov. 2022

Diverging from the topic of majestic Cetaceans, I recently saw the Ukraine vs Sweden game and began pondering about Ukraine during the halftime break. In total, it took about 30 sec as I know nothing about Ukraine other than the name of its capital. Later on however, I remembered that one of my favorite topics tragically took place there. Which brings me to the topic of the week -The Chernobyl Disaster.

In the 26th of April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, an explosion occurred shortly past midnight. This was due to a nuclear reaction caused by a faulty design found in older Soviet nuclear reactors. That wasn't the only reason though, as bureaucrats had forced a safety test during hazardous circumstances, conducted by staff that hadn't been properly trained. Ironic, isn't it? Regardless, human error in combination with dangerous conditions and flawed equipment turned out to be a pretty good recipe for disaster. The reactor in which the explosion took place had been completely destroyed, leading to massive amounts of radiation spreading across Europe. Two days after the disaster, an alarm at the Swedish power plant Forsmark was sounded. This led to the employees tracking the source to Ukraine, and afterward notifying the world.

A scene from "Chernobyl (2019)" - Source: HBO, Chernobyl (2019)

Despite it occurring in 1986, it wasn't too long ago that the disaster was a hot topic. In May 2019, the mini-series Chernobyl aired and brought about a wave of newfound interest for the incident. I was included in that wave, partially due to occasionally having read interesting tidbits about Chernobyl. The show was brilliant in highlighting the technical issues, political intrigues, and impact it had on citizens of Chernobyl and Pripyat, in a way that even a simpleton like me could become a self-proclaimed expert on the subject. The show was used in the public discourse as an illustration of why new nuclear plants shouldn't be built, and at the same time as an argument for why more should be built, showcasing its nuanced take on the incident.

As good as the show may be though, with its brilliant retelling and memorable quotes, it is a story adapted for entertainment. In other words, the writers took some creative liberties and quite a few statements were wildly exaggerated. The latter is highly relevant, as the writers of the show are not the only ones that have spread misinformation.

Boris Shcherbina (left) and Valery Legasov (right, with glasses), both played an important role in the investigation of Chernobyl. Source: Can't find the original source, only this

Acute Radiation Sickness (ARS) is the condition most commonly, deliberately or inadvertently, associated with radiation exposure. The conditions entail many different adverse health effects and are caused by cell and DNA damage due to ionizing radiation. The lethality rate varies depending on exposure, but contracting it is not a death sentence despite its terrifying symptoms. In fact, the United Nations Scientific Committee released a report regarding Chernobyl that stated that of the 134 persons that contracted ARS, 28 died within 4 months, while 19 more died due to it over the next 20 years. While a 65% case survival rate does not represent the actual survival rate, a statistic I unfortunately could not find, it paints a more optimistic picture than what I at least previously imagined.

It's shown in the series that ARS was contracted by the citizens of Chernobyl and Pripyat, but that isn't correct as the power plant workers and firemen were the only ones ever close enough to be afflicted by it. The citizens only seemed to have received an average dose of 30/h millisieverts, which is equivalent to 3 CT scans. To put it in perspective, 700 millisieverts/h is when the mildest form of ARS arises usually leading to feeling nauseous and vomiting, and 4000 millisieverts/h is when death within months is possible if left untreated. 10 000 millisieverts/h lead to death within weeks and 20 000 millisieverts/h shorten it to hours, no more than a few days, until death. I would not advise looking up what happens to your body at those levels, but a small comfort is that it is very, very rare to be exposed to such numbers.

ARS is incredibly hard to fall victim to, as it has only happened during the most extreme circumstances such as the WW2 atomic bombings or Chernobyl. (*SPOILER*) Unlike in the portrayal, ARS does not spread between persons, does not kill the person afflicted instantly, and most definitely cannot be absorbed by a baby. (*SPOILER END*) In fact, studies have shown that the children born after the incident to parents that had been exposed had no indication of any sort DNA damage or other health effects related to radiation. It is stated in the show that cancer rates rose dramatically following the accident, but that isn't true either.

Due to different valid and reliable sources claiming contradictory statements, I won't touch the topic regarding the citizen's long-term health effects. Point is that even in the worst circumstances, radiation isn't as lethal as spouted. Extreme cases aside of course.

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, also known as Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, shortly after the explosion. Source: Wojtek Laski/Getty Images

The other major misinformation presented in the series is the idea that the power plant was on the verge of becoming a nuclear bomb that would make most of Europe uninhabitable. To keep it short, that's false and a nuclear power plant cannot explode like a nuclear bomb.

"50,000 people used to live here, now its a ghost town." - Cpt. John Price. Pripyat, Ukraine. Source: Sean Gallup / Getty

Lastly, we have the two most famous radioactive hotspots. The hospital basement, and the Elephants foot. The hospital basement is where the firemen that were tasked with putting out the burning reactor had their outfits stored. Since they stayed near the core, and among fractured parts that had flown away by the explosion, their clothes and equipment became incredibly radioactive. They're still radioactive to this day, and it isn't advised to try them on if you manage to reach the basement. However, you can be near them for quite a while without having to worry about the radiation.

At the levels that they are currently emitting, you need to be in close proximity to them for a few hours before any consequences to your health. The dangerous part is breathing in radioactive particles since that will dramatically increase the risk to contract lung cancer. Without going into details about the different types of ionizing particles, the weak alpha particles that are being emitted cannot penetrate our skin, but what won't be of any help if it's breathed in, hence the danger.

Hospital 126 basement, the storage room for the clothes. Charming place. Source: Chernobyl Place

The location commonly thought to be the most radioactive place in all of Chernobyl is expectedly found at the power plant, though not in the actual reactor, but instead below it in a basement. It is a molten mix of radioactive elements that have melted through the floor of the reactor, referred to as the Elephant's Foot due to its resemblance to one. At its worst, it was reported to emit 100 000 millisieverts/h and would kill anyone exposed to it within minutes. Today it has mellowed a bit, emitting 800 millisieverts/h, and a quick visit would not be a death sentence. Still not recommended though.

The Elephants Foot, 1996. The man that took this picture, Artur Korneyev, was still alive in 2014 despite the exposure (Reported to have health issues though related to his visit). The mass used to be so solid that armor-piercing rounds from an AK were needed to crack it (was actually tested). In 2021, it was described as having the consistency of sand. Source: US Department of Energy

There is a ton more to discuss about Chernobyl, so I might return to the topic somewhere far off in the future. This will have to do for now though. There is an interesting album of pictures taken before the disaster that are quite haunting which I'll link below. I have downplayed the danger of radiation in this article, so read a bit more about it in case you plan to expose yourself to high amounts of radiation.

To summarize this article; Chernobyl (2019) is a great tv series, and radiation is bad. It's just that the show isn't flawless, and that radiation isn't as bad as people believe.

Articles about the Chernobyl accident that may interest you and largely influenced this article:

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