Medicine For People!

October 2016: Nuclear Disasters

Nuclear Disasters

A day of disaster begins like any normal day. If you showed up to work at the World Trade Center on a certain September day in 2001, the date probably would have meant little to you. Were you a passenger on the Titanic, the morning of the fatal day would have been peaceful and quiet, with coffee, tea, and breakfast companions at your beautifully set table.

Chernobyl Disaster


If you worked at a certain nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Russia, on April 25, 1986, you would have walked home from your night shift through a morning of wood warblers singing in the springtime beech trees. The temperature would have been in the 30s, and you would arrive home to find your wife Natasha soothing your two-year-old Kirill. Your parents had named you Alexander Yuvchenko, but everyone called you Sasha. You had chosen the Chernobyl facility because it had a reputation as one of the more prestigious nuclear power plants in the Soviet Union, the pay was good, and you had enjoyed the practical part of your training there as a nuclear engineer. During the shift you had just completed, an important safety test had been started on your reactor, one of four units at the power station. There was a known safety problem. The emergency power to cool the reactor took about 60 to 75 seconds to come on line, too long for safety. A workaround fix had been devised, and your team had begun powering down the reactor so that a test of the fix could be completed during the day, under the control of senior engineers familiar with the process.

The prestige of Chernobyl proved illusory, and shortly after midnight a very dull workplace suddenly exploded. About 30 of your colleagues died, some of them before your eyes. When you developed the skin burns, nausea, and weakness indicative of radiation sickness, you were airlifted to Moscow. Natasha hovered at your bedside. Your doctors (along with Robert Gale, an American hematologist) nursed your devastated immune system, and you teetered on the brink of death for months before your youthful strength restored you to life.

Chernobyl was an accident waiting to happen, but before telling you why, let us look at Chernobyl today, 30 years later.

Contaminated Land

Here are the restrictions the Russians placed on about 1000 square miles of territory.

Chernobyl radiation map


The "hot spots" seem randomly distributed, like a rash; here is why. During the 10 or so days during which the fire burned at Chernobyl, wind direction varied. Rain showers here and there pulled varying amounts of radioactive particles down to earth. This map shows those varying levels of contamination. While walking around on the actual ground with a Geiger counter, people find that levels can vary from footstep to footstep.

In a later newsletter, I will cover how some radioactive materials such as iodine 131 are "hot" and decay quickly, and others such as manganese are "cold" and decay over such a long time that we barely notice them. This map is keyed on cesium 137, which is not too hot and not too cold, and therefore, unlike Goldilocks' porridge, a real problem.

In this Walk Around Chernobyl, a journalist, reporting with the damaged reactor in the background, holds up his radiation meter. The level of 5.19 microSieverts per hour you see on the screen works out to a dose of about 45 milliSieverts per year, just a bit below the United States limit of 50 milliSieverts per year for nuclear power plant workers. (one milliSievert = 1000 microSieverts) That is why the Russians continued operation of the other three units of the plant after the explosion, decommissioning the last unit in the year 2000.

Chernobyl Disaster

Many older residents of the Chernobyl area figured they had little to lose by returning to their homes. Covering Life in the Exclusion Zone, a journalist interviews one such holdout, Oleksandr Sirota.

Reclaiming Contaminated Land

At both Chernobyl and Fukushima, significant amounts of neighboring land were contaminated. The title of Radioactive Wolves is misleading. It does show, however the evolving conditions on the contaminated land around Chernobyl.


The Dangers of Technology

All technology is dangerous, and the more advanced it is, the more dangerous. First we were burnt by fire, run over by horses and carts, injured in accidents aboard sailing ships or drowned when they sank, killed by steam boiler explosions, electrocuted and burned by electricity, and snuffed out in automobile accidents. Now we face the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

If you wish to read details of the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima, Wikipedia has both short summaries and longer expositions which match well with the books I have read on this subject (links and a list appears in the endnotes below).

Nuclear Factoids

There have been over 20 nuclear meltdowns in the 70 or so years of our experience. In the greatest disasters, those at Fukushima and Chernobyl, an exact accounting of the destruction from these accidents will never be possible.


The same tsunami which disabled the Fukushima plant killed over 18,000 Japanese, many of them washed out to sea and their bodies never recovered.

At Fukushima I, the General Electric BWR reactors with outdated containment systems were almost 50 years old. United States reactors of the same vintage and design were upgraded for safety reasons in 1989; this was not done at Fukushima.

TEPCO, which owned and operated the Fukushima reactors, had been falsifying safety records. Governmental authorities allowed them to dodge safety requirements of regulatory agencies.  

Several days were required for the reactor disaster to unfold. Masao Yoshida, plant superintendent, had to fight with government officials as he worked around the clock to reduce the damage. His supervisors were concerned that he did not have permits for the emergency measures he needed to take. At one point he whispered to an engineer to continue to pump cooling water into the plant, then stood up in front of the video feed in the plant control room and dramatically shouted "turn off the pumps!" to satisfy a higher-level bureaucrat. Later, an effort to truck in batteries to operate vital plant equipment was delayed by government requirements for permits.

TEPCO's neighboring nuclear power plants fared better:

  • At Fukushima II, 7 miles south of Fukushima I, four reactors suffered damage but were safely shut down without serious contamination.
  • Three nuclear reactors at Onagawa, closest to the epicenter of the quake, were protected by their 46-foot high seawall and shut down safely.
  • The levees at Tohoku were breached by the tsunami, but the two reactors there were safely shut down despite loss of external power.

Radioactive water is still leaking into the Pacific. Radiation products from Fukushima can be detected in salmon and tuna swimming near our Pacific coast. This sounds scary, but we know about it because we can now detect just 20 decaying radioactive atoms in a cubic yard of water (approximately 100 liters of water). That's 20 atoms out of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. The experts from The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute continue to study this situation, but point out we do unimaginably more harm to the ocean through rising temperatures, garbage, and much else. The amount of radioactive materials in the fish from Fukushima is only about a tenth of the radiation that fish already carry from naturally occurring radioactive minerals dissolved in seawater.

Three Mile Island

No one died as a result of the meltdown at Three Mile Island. In the accident, a small quantity of radioactive gases from the leak was deliberately vented into the atmosphere through specially designed filters under operator control. The average local exposure was the equivalent of a chest x-ray.


The culture of secrecy in the Russian bureaucracy prevented an optimal response to the fire at Chernobyl. Instead, helicopter pilots extinguished the fires by hovering in the highly radioactive plume above the plant to drop fire suppressant material, basically flying back and forth until they died.

People in Chernobyl and the reactor town of Pripyat were issued thyroid-saving iodine immediately and evacuated shortly thereafter. Disaster plans did not include the rural regions surrounding Chernobyl, and iodine was issued there far too late. Over 6000 cases of thyroid cancer occurred in these regions later, with 15 deaths as of 2005.

Much radioactivity also fell onto Poland, but Polish public health authorities quickly provided iodine to the population and avoided the wave of thyroid cancer that struck Russia.

The World Health Organization, United Nations, and U.S. health authorities estimate there have been about 6000 excess deaths from cancer because of Chernobyl.

The type of plant that exploded at Chernobyl is not considered safe in the West. The Russians still operate about 10 of these plants.

Nuclear Disaster Radiation Doses Compared

Modern instruments can detect sub-minuscule amounts of radiation, including the tiny fraction of naturally occurring radioactive potassium in a banana. A truckload of bananas at an international border is capable of setting off radiation alarms. The "banana equivalent dose" (no joke; you can find it in Wikipedia) is listed below.

A table in our August newsletter covered U.S. average annual radiation exposure. This table compares radiation exposure of the different nuclear plant disasters. Remember, 1000 microSieverts is equivalent to 1 milliSievert.



microSieverts (µSv) to match reading in meter illustrated above

U.S. annual average radiation exposure, including medical



Banana equivalent dose



Maximum dose to people living within 10 miles of the Three Mile Island accident



Dose from spending 1 hour on the grounds of the Chernobyl plant 30 years after meltdown (varies from location to location)



Single full-body CT scan

10 to 30

10,000 to 30,000

Maximum annual allowed dose for U.S. nuclear power workers



Maximum dose to closest residential neighbors of the Fukushima power plant during tsunami aftermath



6 months' service on the International Space Station



Maximum allowable for U.S. astronauts, lifetime



Psychological Consequences

Around 150,000 people fled from the area around the Fukushima accident. Some 100,000 are still living as refugees, many reluctant to return. Health authorities had for years set the annual safety radiation level at 1 milliSievert. Following the accident, they determined that an annual limit of 20 milliSieverts more realistically matched the risk-benefit of a return home, though many refugees do not feel safe with this conclusion.

As with those exposed at Chernobyl, the emotional disruption proved more distressing to many than the physical harm.

Yuvchenko Speaks

And Sasha Yuvchenko, whose story opened this newsletter? What does he think about nuclear power?

"I'm fine about it, as long as safety is put head and shoulders above any other concern, financial or whatever. If you keep safety as your number one priority at all stages of planning and running a plant, it should be OK."

That is a gigantic "if." All too frequently we humans fail to fulfill our responsibilities. Yet our increasing population and careless waste have turned what was once a vast planet into a struggling spaceship. We are shortsighted in our handling of garbage, carbon, and radioactive waste. We are shortsighted in preparing for the future. And we have a heckuva time getting along with each other.

So what do we do? Dear Reader, stay tuned!

Suggested Reading

Wikipedia pages

Books and articles

Alexievich S. Voices from Chernobyl: the oral history of a nuclear disaster.

Buesseler K. Fukushima-derived radionuclides in the ocean and biota off Japan.

Flannery T. Atmosphere of hope: Searching for solutions to the climate crisis

Gale RP. Radiation: what it is, what you need to know.

Jorgensen T. Strange glow: the story of radiation.

Leatherbarrow A. Chernobyl 01: 23:40-The incredible true story of the world's worst nuclear disaster.

Lochbaum D. Fukushima: the story of a nuclear disaster. (safety faults listed pages 49 and 63, Yoshido's insubordination pages 60 to 62)

MacKay D. Sustainable energy without all the hot air.

Mahaffey J. Atomic accidents: a history of nuclear meltdowns and disasters from the Ozark mountains to Fukushima.

McLeish E. The pros and cons of nuclear power.

Mould RF. Chernobyl record: the definitive history of the Chernobyl catastrophe.

Nye B. UnStoppable.

Sheets LS. 8 Pieces of Empire: A 20 year journey through the Soviet collapse.

Videos from PBS

Earth: The operator's manual.

Japan's killer quake.



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Medicine for People! is published by Douwe Rienstra, MD at Port Townsend, Washington.