Tenshot: Chernobyl

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Michael Siegel

Michael Siegel is an astronomer living in Pennsylvania. He is on Twitter, blogs at his own site, and has written a novel.

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    • I usually like Shellenberger on this subject but I think he’s way too defensive in that post. Much of the things he complains about was dramatic license. And he seems to think that a few people expressing their concerns on social media says … something. The movie is pretty explicit that this accident would not have happened but for the flaw in the RBMK design (a flaw that was not corrected until after Legasov killed himself).

      Moreover, he’s wrong on one specific point — radiation can spread like a disease. Maybe not quite as dramatically as it does in the show. But in the podcast, Mazin talks about one man who got a hand-shaped burn on his back from where one of the firefighters touched him. And Lyudmilla Ignatenko did, in fact, lose her baby after caring for her husband. Was it radiation sickness or just coincidence? Hard to tell. He sites Fukushima but the firefighters at Chernobyl were exposed to WAY more radiation than Fukushima.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Siegel says:

        I think one of the important things that always gets lost is that being exposed to radiation, even lethal amounts, does not make a person radioactive. You have to ingest or inhale isotopes undergoing radioactive decay in order to be “radioactive”, or be covered in a layer of such matter (which is why you shower after exposure, to remove anything on your skin, not to wash away the radiation)..

        So the firefighter probably had isotopes on his hand/glove, which caused a contact burn. Likewise, the husband could have inhaled or ingested particles and was thus emitting radiation, or exhaling them and thus exposing his wife. If isotopes are still present, then a person could be ‘contagious’ (they could trigger a meter).

        But the people who had no exposure to the isotopes, just the energy? They might get sick, but they are not ‘contagious’.

        And this is something the media rarely gets right. Radiation is energy, it can be harmful, but it will not make you radioactive. Decaying isotopes, if they get into your body, still don’t make you radioactive, but they don’t necessarily exit the body quickly (which is why we have chelating therapies), so the energy they emit continues to cause damage.

        And depending on the emitted particles, and where they are in the body, you might not even be radiating enough to be dangerous to anyone else.Report

        • Avatar veronica d in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          Yeah this. I wish more people understood enough basic physics to understand the difference between “radiation” and “radioactive material.”Report

        • Yes, agreed. Chernobyl was unusual because of the sheer degree of contamination. But you can also get induced radioactivity (although probably not from a person) where things exposed to high levels of radiation become radioactive (e.g., component of nuclear power plants).Report

          • Avatar veronica d in reply to Michael Siegel says:

            Can something exposed to high levels of radiation become radioactive? How does that happen?

            I get how radioactive dust can make something radioactive. That’s obvious. But how can mere radiation do that?Report

            • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to veronica d says:

              Busy unpacking from the move right now, so I can’t look up the specifics, but IIRC, some materials can become so bombarded that the atoms of the material begin to slowly decay themselves. Living things can’t tolerate that level of exposure, and quickly die. The remains of a living thing can continue the decay and emit radiation, but those remains are also decomposing, so they won’t stick around for long (&, IIRC, there are bacteria that love a good bit of radiation with their decomposing matter, and will accelerate the process).Report

            • Can something exposed to high levels of radiation become radioactive? How does that happen?

              Over time, induced radioactivity is very much a thing, mostly through neutron activation*. Every one of the existing nuclear reactors will, when retired, have several hundred tons of steel that is mildly radioactive and some amount from the internal structures that is quite radioactive. Depending on the design, there may be a bunch of mildly radioactive concrete as well. The good news is that most of the isotopes involved have short half-lives. In a hundred years or so, all of the stuff will have decayed down to “harmless” levels.

              * Eg, an iron-58 atom captures a neutron, then decays to cobalt-59. Cobalt 59 can capture a neutron and then decay to cobalt-60, which is either useful or nasty stuff, depending on your perspective.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Michael Siegel says:

        Moreover, he’s wrong on one specific point — radiation can spread like a disease.

        *contamination* can spread like a disease. It’s the particulates (i.e dirt) that contain radioactive elements that can spread on contact (like dirt), get dissolved in water & then ingested, and become airborne and then inhaled. (And then of course if a plant or animal absorbs this contamination from any vector, and then is eaten by humans, that contamination is also ingested and magnified thru bioaccumulation)

        Also, of course, the human fetus is far more susceptible to the effects of radiation (& every other environmental ‘not normal’) than humans at other stages of life.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Kolohe says:

          It’s the difference between radiation and contamination that is often glossed over in popular media and news reporting, such that audiences come to conflate one with the other.

          If I was running a show like this, I would try real hard to make sure that the audience understood the difference between the two.Report

  1. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    Is that a picture of Jabba the Hutt after Leia strangled him with her own chains?Report

  2. Avatar George Turner says:

    Chernobyl has apparently replaced The Shawshank Redemption as IMDb’s most highly rated show of all time.

    But some in the Russian media aren’t happy.

    The Moscow Times’ take on all that.

    So they’re going to make a new show about the real heroes of Chernobyl, the patriotic Russian military people who were battling the CIA agents at the plant, which pretty much confirms everything HBO showed about the Soviet system.Report

    • The rating will fall; IMDB ratings, like RBMK reactor cores, tend to shoot up than slowly come back down to Earth..

      As for Russia doing their take on it, I now like the HBO series even more.Report

    • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to George Turner says:

      If the Russians understand American politics as well as I think they do, it will be the patriotic Russian military/ KGB fighting the American DEEP STATE, with a cameo appearance by Hillary Clinton where she says “We need to put those nuclear workers out of a job!”Report

  3. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    What is the best legal way to watch Chernobyl without having to sign up for HBO or and HBO service? I just want to pay for the miniseries rather than everything HBO has to offer.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to LeeEsq says:

      HBO often releases series on DVDs which are then often available in public librariesReport

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Kolohe says:

        Assumes people have DVD players. The content providers are being annoyingly more intelligent in an evil way when it comes to making money in the streaming age.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

          If you want to watch more content but don’t have a DVD player and don’t want to spend money on streaming, then I suggest this article.Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to LeeEsq says:

          You don’t have $25 for a USB DVD drive?

          People who have a TV newer than about 15 years, a computer newer than about 15 years, and a USB DVD drive have a DVD player, although they may need a couple of cheap cables to make it work. I think that puts almost all households within a relatively few bucks of having a DVD player.

          Our family room TV, new several months ago, will recognize if I plug the USB DVD drive into the TV’s USB port and play it. Actually, it will recognize all sorts of USB mass storage devices and will play all sorts of video formats from them. Almost all TVs sold these days have some sort of ARM-based Linux running if you dig down deep enough — some just make more of it available to the users than others.Report

          • Avatar George Turner in reply to Michael Cain says:

            I spent $36 on a Keedox 1080p video player at Amazon, which plays just about any video format out there and outputs it to HDMI. There are similar units that might be a bit better, but it’s very easy to use.

            I bought it because it’s hard to figure out which TV supports which video formats. Some primarily handle AVI but not MKV, and some are the opposite, etc.Report

  4. it’s indictment is aimed at the system of the Soviet Union.

    That’s an oversimplification. Certainly Soviet communism made everything it touched worse, but reckless stupidity can happen anywhere. And the immediate cause of the disaster had nothing to do with communism: it was the people in charge being more interested in personal gain than in doing their jobs responsibly, with their underlings going along because they were afraid of being fired.Report

  5. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Chernobyl is not anti-nuclear, as Mazin has clarified a number of times.

    I saw a comparison of Chernobyl to a documentary that talked about the efforts to remove Thimerosal from vaccines.

    The intention might not have been to poison the well for support of Nuclear power, but that’s where we are anyway.Report

    • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Jaybird says:

      Barnum said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Nuclear is in the opposite position, where all publicity is bad. At the very least, the only things considered newsworthy are bad things. A miniseries about Chernobyl; WIPP leaking radioactive gases; the latest news from the Hanford site, or the INL; the Vogtle reactors running even further over budget. Nobody does stories about the Fast Flux Test Facility that was safely doing all sorts of useful and interesting research at the same time that Chernobyl happened.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

        IMHO, it’s because those kinds of stories are difficult to do and the journalists feel like they have to spend a lot of time doing dry explanations better suited to an episode of Nova or something.

        But accidents are full of scary radiation stuff and no one needs to explain about radiation and isotopes and exposure limits and danger with long time horizons, etc to get eyeballs. Kinda like how news articles never talk about L/D when discussing toxins/poisons/etc.Report

      • “If we had screwed up the recovery, we could have rendered half of Europe uninhabitable” is kind of newsworthy.Report

        • Indeed. But “With the EBR-II operating at full power, we shut off its coolant circulation pumps. Instead of going all Chernobyl, reactor output fell to effectively zero within 300 seconds,” is not.

          It’s a moot point. Starting with Carter in the late 1970s, the federal government under both Democrats and Republicans decided that they were not in the new reactor design/testing business beyond paper studies.

          Regular readers know where I stand. The Western Interconnect, where I get my electricity, can become a robust, reliable, low-carbon grid in a straightforward manner without nuclear. We should get on with it promptly, at least to the extent the feds allow it. How the Eastern and Texas Interconnects solve the problem is up to them. I will point out that with the Vogtle 3 and 4 nukes approaching $12/watt in capital construction costs, it’s not clear that they can afford for nuclear to be part of their solutions.Report

  6. I am now bingeing in the podcast, which is excellent, though it’s a bit weird that the interviewer is the host of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.Report

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