Putin’s aggressive attack on the Ukraine puts Europe at high risk of another radiation catastrophe. Ukraine has many nuclear power plants and damaging any one of them could release clouds of lethal radiation.
In some ways the current assault is just yet another in centuries of assaults on the Ukraine and near-by countries. I’m a scientist, not a historian and don’t pretend to understand the politics. However, it is remarkable to read of the number of wars that have affected the Ukraine region. As one example, in 1919 the city of Kyiv changed ‘hands’ five times in a period of less than 12 months.
The recent news that Putin’s troops shelled the Ukraine and Europe’s largest power station Zaporizhzia last week was of great concern to the whole of Europe. Fortunately, no radiation seems to have been released. There are conflicting news reports as to who currently controls of the facility. The Russians had announced that they had taken over the plant but more recent reports – this one from India – report that the plant is now back under Ukrainian control.
5 years after Chernobyl – conference at Chernobyl in 1991
Putin’s current assault reminds me of my visit to Chernobyl in late April 1991, five years after the ‘radiation accident’ to attend an international conference of radiation ‘experts’ at the Chernobyl site. I’m not sure who the organizers were (someone who can read Russian might be able to read this billboard) but we were housed outside the 30km exclusion zone in a former army camp. It seemed to me that the conference organizers were ‘pro-Kyiv’ but nevertheless during our visit we were made to wear Russian army uniforms (including ‘underwear’) and were constantly watched by KGB officers. Putin may well have been one of these senior KGB?
The photo below shows the ‘international scientists’ standing in front of the Sarcophagus, the shelter built around the faulty reactor 6.
Apparently, the Sarcophagus has now greatly deteriorated and may soon leak radiation. This isn’t very surprising as the standard of construction in the USSR in those years was atrocious!
The lack of adequate equipment at the conference was remarkable. In my talk I am pictured giving below, someone is trying to hold the slide in place. Even this ancient projector is broken and given this is an international meeting, it is the best they have!
Were we at risk of high radiation exposure?
The answer is ‘no’. There were very strict regulations about travelling within the ‘exclusion zone’ and several of my colleagues carried Geiger counters with them. As we stood in front of the Sarcophagus, I asked ‘How much radiation exposure am I being exposed to?’. My colleagues told me that it was less than half a ‘chest X-Ray’ and that I probably would have received more radiation on my plane trip from Australia!
So, given the different types of radiation exposures we might receive, I have adapted a Table sourced from radiologyinfo.org to give an overview of relative risks. Exposures to high levels of ionizing radiation can cause mutation (changes in genes), radiation sickness, various types of cancer and it can kill. However, radiation is also able to give us clean power and when used in various medical applications it can be used to prolong life. Radiation is measured in milli Sieverts (mSv).
|Occasion of exposure||Radiation dose (mSv)|
|Single dose, fatal within weeks||10,000|
|Typical dose Chernobyl workers who died within a month||6,000|
|Accumulated dosage to cause fatal cancer in 5% of people||1,000|
|Recommended limit for radiation workers every five years||100|
|Dose received in full-body CT scan||10|
|Airline crew flying New York to Tokyo polar route, per year||9|
|Natural radiation most are exposed to each year||2|
|CT Scan Head||2|
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