Total Drek

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Let's all go to Chernobyl...

...and see what happens. Let's at least go in a thought experiment, and maybe we'll learn something.

On April 26, 1986, the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine, USSR exploded, causing the radioactive core of the plant to melt, releasing highly radioactive elements into the surrounding air. Radioactive poisons covered the town and drifted on winds as far away as Ireland. So far, at least 56 people have died due to exposure, but health officials estimate that more than 9,000 people could die someday, directly because of Chernobyl poisoning. Or maybe more than 30,000 people, depending on who you ask. Predicting health effects of radiation exposure is not easy.

The city of Chernobyl is now a ghost town (click that link - it is really heartwrenching, especially the pictures of the school and the ferris wheel). Today, much of the radioactivity has dissipated, but it's still highly dangerous to go into the plant. But you could* - and if you did, you would discover a very important lesson about the nature of science and its role in our lives.

The accident occurred during the middle of the night. The poorly-trained night shift crew was running a scheduled maintenance test to see how little power the backup generators would require to maintain the safety systems that kept the reactor cool. Allow me to repeat that, to reveal its full insanity... TO SEE HOW LITTLE POWER THE BACKUP GENERATORS WOULD REQUIRE TO MAINTAIN THE SAFETY SYTEMS. They certainly did find out, and proved that truly, human stupidity knows no boundaries. The Wikipedia article has a more detailed explanation of how the disaster occurred.

A cloud of radioactive particles - plutonium, strontium, iodine, and other elements - spread into the air, and increased radioactivity levels were seen as far away as Ireland. The U.S. Office of Scientific and Technical information published a detailed report about the radiation release.

The area within 30 km of the plant was evacuated, and is now the previously-mentioned ghost town of Chernobyl. Children in that area immediately received a radiation dose of up to 50 grays of radiation exposure (as written in Wikipedia, but not referenced).**

The most deadly radioactive element from Chernobyl was Iodine-131, which has a half-life of only 8 days. So the surrounding area is fairly safe - in fact, Belarus has declared part of the Chernobyl-fallout-affected area as a nature reserve. But the reactor itself is still sealed inside a concrete structure. Workers go in to make repairs on the structure - they work in full protective gear, only a few minutes per day.

What would happen if you went inside the structure, unprotected, and spent a lot of time there? You probably wouldn't notice anything wrong, but your chance of developing cancer would irrevocably increase. With more time and exposure, you would start to get sick, with nausea and vomiting as your immune system started to fail. If you happened to be pregnant, you would almost certainly miscarry. With more radiation exposure, you would start bleeding internally, and your immune system would start to fail. Manhattan Project scientist Louis Slotin died nine days after this level of radiation exposure, after heroically directing a burst of strong radiation toward himself and saving eight other people in the room.

This is not at all pleasant. So how do you protect yourself? Scientists and engineers have developed radiation safety devices and measures, most prominently Geiger counters and radiation badges (film badge dosimeters). Geiger counters click when they detect radiation, and radiation badges change color when they have received an unsafe dose. When you hear clicks or you see the badge change, you know it's time to leave. When I was an innocent undergraduate (geo)physics student, they gave us badges for an experiment we did measuring radioactive decay. The badge never changed - a testimony to the good safety procedures that we put in place. If I ever saw mine, or anyone's change, I would have left the lab immediately.

And that's the lesson about the nature of science. Drek previously commented on some misguided statements by Dinesh D'Souza, who said:

The atheist writer Richard Dawkins has observed that according to the findings of modern science, the universe has all the properties of a system that is utterly devoid of meaning. The main characteristic of the universe is pitiless indifference.... If this is the best that modern science has to offer us, I think we need something more than modern science.***

But if D'Souza ever went to Chernobyl, he'd understand that science does not work that way. Yes, the universe is pitiless and indifferent, but hey, did we really need science to tell us that? All of human history has been us struggling against pitiless, indifferent nature! I think we've done pretty well for ourselves.

If he went to Chernobyl, what D'Souza would realize is that science can protect you. Let me repeat what I said above: What would happen if you went inside the [Chernobyl power plant] structure, unprotected, and spent a lot of time there? You probably wouldn't notice anything wrong, but your chance of developing cancer would irrevocably increase.

But not if you had a radiation badge! If Dinesh D'Souza went to Chernobyl with a radiation badge, the discoveries of science would save your life. He would know when he stayed to long, and he would leave. Similarly, if he developed cancer, "good" radiation could save his life. In fact, Iodine-131 is used in some radiation diagnoses and treatments. It's the very same isotope that killed so many people at Chernobyl, just in a lower dose. And what human endeavor discovered what dose of Iodine-131 would heal instead of kill? Science!

What science faces off with a pitiless, indifferent world, science can win. But what science can't do is tell you why you should care enough to help the world. That's the job of religion, or law, or custom, or just common human decency. Science and morality work together to make our world a better place. But we need both.

And that's the lesson of Chernobyl.****

*OK, so you really couldn't. The door is locked and there are guards. But this is a thought experiment.

**I'm trying to give a comparison to chest x-rays or similar medical radiation exposures, but it's hard to find information, and the differing biological effects of exposure to different kinds of radiation make comparisons difficult. Can anyone help with this?

***No, I'm not quote mining. Read his original blogpost if you like.

****Another lesson: Don't be an idiot. For example, don't try to see how little power a nuclear reactor will need to operate safely. But we know how much power is enough - a little more than we need - to keep the reactor safe. Science can help you with that too.*****

*****Then there's the question of whether nuclear power is a good idea. That's a question for both science and morality too! It's also a topic best left for future posts.

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Blogger Drek said...

Nicely put, Slag. I couldn't have done it better myself.

Monday, June 18, 2007 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Chernobyl happened on April, not January 26, 1986.

Monday, June 18, 2007 6:59:00 PM  
Blogger Slag said...

Oops, you're right. It was April 26th, 1986, not January. This was a mental typo on my part. I will fix it in the post.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007 6:22:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some other (tangential) comments...

The Chernobyl facility was operated for many years after the accident -- just not that particular core. (The operators were bussed in and out.)

The exclusion zone is now more or less a nature paradise. Remove most of the human presence for twenty years, and nature recovers grandly.

Finally, the UN report is very readable. I'd suggest a link to

Tuesday, June 19, 2007 6:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I personally visited the Chernobyl area for two days in June 2006 with a friend and former resident of Pripyat. We toured the Chernobyl Plant (including the Reactor 4 control room), several of the abandoned villages, and Pripyat. I have posted a photo journal of my trip at:

My Journey To Chernobyl: 20 Years After the Disaster


Thursday, June 21, 2007 5:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Paul Thomas said...

I visited Chernobyl Zone and Pripyat in July 2009. They don't allow you to go to the Reactor 4 control room anymore :-(, but we were close enough to see and make cool pics. Now they call it Ecological Tour :-))

Monday, July 27, 2009 6:25:00 AM  

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