Even Chernobyl did not do a Chernobyl

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Michael Hanlon, science editor for the Daily Mail, says that what’s happened in Japan should be an endorsement of nuclear power:

Think about it: despite being faced with a Magnitude 9 Great Earthquake which knocked the whole island of Honshu several feet to the west, a 35ft tsunami and the complete breakdown of the infrastructure, a handful of rather ancient atomic reactors have remained largely intact and have released only tiny amounts of radiation.

There have been some dramatic explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but casualties have been light; maybe a dozen blast-injuries and a handful of cases of suspected radiation sickness. And remember: thousands were killed by the tsunami.

We could be looking at another Three Mile Island, and that would be terrible, right?

Well, not really. The accident at the eponymous nuclear plant in Pennsylvania took place on 29 March 1978. That day, a partial core meltdown in Reactor Core No 2 led to local then national panic. There was talk of a China Syndrome, the title of a schlock disaster movie released coincidentally that year which dealt with a reactor meltdown leading to a blob of molten nuclear fuel burning its way through the Earth to emerge on the other side (i.e, from the US to China).

In the end the meltdown was contained, and there was no breach of the reactor containment vessel and certainly no China Syndrome (which turns out to be a myth in any case).

As with Japan today, a small amount of radioactivity was released but this resulted in zero deaths and no measureable increase in illness. In fact, one epidemiological study concluded that the net effect of the world’s second-worst nuclear accident was to give everyone living within 15 miles of the plant a radiation dose equivalent to one chest x-ray.

What if Fukushima does a Chernobyl?

The thing is, even Chernobyl did not do a Chernobyl. This was, by far, the worst nuclear accident in history (a Category 7) and yet the most astonishing thing about Chernobyl is just how uncatastrophic even this mega-disaster turned out to be.

After the explosion, the world waited. For the cancers, for the gruesome birth defects, terrible radiation burns. Up until the mid-1990s, the generally accepted death toll (including that quoted by the Ukrainian Health Ministry) was in the region or 125,000. As time wore on, these figures plummeted.

In fact, 31 people were killed when the reactor blew — 28 from radiation exposure and three scalded to death by escaping steam. In addition, 134 people received high radiation doses and several dozen of these have subsequently died, although several of unrelated causes. A few hundred people, maybe a few thousand, may die prematurely in years to come, mostly from untreated thyroid cancers, but it is becoming clear that the original assessment was wildly pessimistic.

He goes on to cite Britain’s “excellent” Chief Scientist, Sir John Beddington:

If the Japanese fail to keep the reactors cool and fail to keep the pressure in the containment vessels at an appropriate level, you can get the dramatic word ‘meltdown’. But what does that actually mean? What a meltdown involves is [that] the basic reactor core melts, and as it melts, nuclear material will fall through to the floor of the container. There it will react with concrete and other materials. That is likely… remember this is the reasonable worst case, we don’t think anything worse is going to happen.

‘In this reasonable worst case you get an explosion. You get some radioactive material going up to about 500 metres up into the air. Now, that’s really serious, but it’s serious again for the local area. It’s not serious for elsewhere … if you then couple that with the worst possible weather situation i.e. prevailing weather taking radioactive material in the direction of Greater Tokyo and you had maybe rainfall which would bring the radioactive material down – do we have a problem?

‘The answer is unequivocally no. Absolutely no issue. The problems are within 30 km of the reactor. And to give you a flavour for that, when Chernobyl had a massive fire at the graphite core, material was going up not just 500 metres but to 30,000 feet. It was lasting not for the odd hour or so but lasted months, and that was putting nuclear radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere for a very long period of time. But even in the case of Chernobyl, the exclusion zone that they had was about 30 kilometres.

‘And in that exclusion zone, outside that, there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate people had problems from the radiation. The problems with Chernobyl were people were continuing to drink the water, continuing to eat vegetables and so on and that was where the problems came from. That’s not going to be the case here. So what I would really re-emphasise is that this is very problematic for the area and the immediate vicinity and one has to have concerns for the people working there. Beyond that 20 or 30 kilometres, it’s really not an issue for health.’

(Hat tip to an anonymous Slovenian guest.)

An Atomic Safari

Friday, March 4th, 2011

Henry Shukman describes his visit to a primeval, teeming Eden:

The wild boar is standing 30 or 40 yards away, at the bottom of a grassy bank, staring right at me. Even from this distance I can see its outrageously long snout, its giant pointed ears, and the spiny bristles along its back. It looks part porcupine, a number of shades of ocher and gray. And it’s far bigger than I expected, maybe chest-high to a man. The boar is like some minor forest god straight from the wilderness, gazing wild-eyed at the strange spectacle of a human being. For a moment it seems to consider charging me, then thinks better of it. When it trots away, it moves powerfully, smoothly, on spindly, graceful legs twice as long as a pig’s, and vanishes into the trees.

I climb back into our VW van, tingling all over. The sighting bodes well. I’ve come to what is being dubbed Europe’s largest wildlife refuge in early July, when I knew spotting animals wouldn’t be so easy. (Winter, with its scarcity of food and lack of foliage, makes them more visible.) And within a couple of hours I’ve ticked a wild boar off the list. Maybe luck is on our side.

But luck isn’t our only obstacle to wildlife spotting here. This is northern Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a huge area, some 60 miles across in places, that’s been off-limits to human habitation since 1986.

So, it’s a primeval, teeming, irradiated Eden:

A handful of dilapidated roads cross the zone, half-overgrown with weeds and grasses, and the whole area is littered with pockets of intense radiation, but nature doesn’t seem to mind. All nature seems to care about is that the people, along with their domestic animals, are for the most part gone. The zone is reverting to one big, untamed forest, and it all sounds like a fantastic success story for nature: remove the humans and the wilderness bounces right back. Lured by tales of mammals unknown in Europe since the Dark Ages, we’re setting out on an atomic safari.
The world beyond the apocalypse may not be so great for humans, but for the other denizens of the planet it looks like a bonanza. Today there are around 5,000 adult wild boars in the Chernobyl Zone. In 1995 there were many more, but they suffered an epidemic and have now stabilized. There are 25 to 30 wolf packs, a total of maybe 180 adults. Many more lynx live here than before, along with foxes, barsuks (a Ukrainian badger), hundreds of red deer, and thousands of roe deer and elk. Out of the disaster comes a paradise of wildlife. The Garden of Eden is regenerating.
House mice, which thrived on grains no longer grown here, have been replaced by forest and field mice. Likewise with the bird species. But it’s the larger mammals we’re interested in.

On the surface, Igor says, the wildlife seems to be thriving, but under the fur and hide, the DNA of most species has become unstable. They’ve eaten a lot of food contaminated with cesium and strontium. Even though the animals look fine, there are differences at the chromosomal level in every generation, as yet mostly invisible. But some have started to show: there are bird populations with freakishly high levels of albinism, with 20 percent higher levels of asymmetry in their feathers, and higher cancer rates. There are strains of mice with resistance to radioactivity—meaning they’ve developed heritable systems to repair damaged cells. Covered in radioactive particles after the disaster, one large pine forest turned from green to red: seedlings from this Red Forest placed in their own plantation have grown up with various genetic abnormalities. They have unusually long needles, and some grow not as trees but as bushes. The same has happened with some birch trees, which have grown in the shape of large, bushy feathers, without a recognizable trunk at all.

Radiation-Seeking Fungus

Saturday, July 26th, 2008

In Chernobyl, wildlife is thriving. In fact, in the old reactor, a new radiation-seeking fungus is thriving:

In 1999, a robot sent to map the inside of the reactor returned with samples of a particularly black fungi, indicating an abundance of the biological pigment melanin, which also colours your skin.

Though melanin is typically associated with ‘protective’ properties – absorbing and safely transforming different electromagnetic wavelengths, such as DNA-damaging ultraviolet light – the researchers had an inkling that a more extraordinary phenomenon was allowing the fungi to prosper; something still involving the combination of melanin and radiation, but beyond the bounds of radioactive protection.

After all, even without melanin, many fungi are intrinsically radiation-resistant.

Their hunch was bolstered by findings of melanised fungi, happily congregating in the cooling pools of functional nuclear reactors, and by studies of dark, ‘radiation-seeking’ fungi, purposefully growing towards radioactive particles in soil, particularly around Chernobyl.

The team looked to the example of photosynthesis as a model, said Casadevall. If plants can use the green pigment, chlorophyll, to absorb energy from the Sun and produce a usable form of chemical energy, they reasoned, fungi might be able to use their melanin pigment and radiation energy in a similar way. They even devised the snazzy moniker, ‘radiosynthesis’, for the process.

To test their idea, the group analysed three different types of fungi, including Cladosporium sphaerospermum, the species abundant in and around Chernobyl. Using ionising radiation from the radioactive isotope, caesium-137, they exposed the fungi to radiation doses similar to those inside the damaged reactor, and about 500 times greater than the Earth’s normal background level.

Melanin-containing fungi exposed to the radiation – even when nutrient-starved on purpose – grew significantly larger and up to 2.5 times faster than fungi without melanin and those not exposed to radiation.

‘How we made the Chernobyl rain’

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

Russian military pilots explain ‘How we made the Chernobyl rain’:

Russian military pilots have described how they created rain clouds to protect Moscow from radioactive fallout after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

Major Aleksei Grushin repeatedly took to the skies above Chernobyl and Belarus and used artillery shells filled with silver iodide to make rain clouds that would “wash out” radioactive particles drifting towards densely populated cities.

More than 4,000 square miles of Belarus were sacrificed to save the Russian capital from the toxic radioactive material.

“The wind direction was moving from west to east and the radioactive clouds were threatening to reach the highly populated areas of Moscow, Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod, Yaroslavl,” he told Science of Superstorms, a BBC2 documentary to be broadcast today.

“If the rain had fallen on those cities it would’ve been a catastrophe for millions. The area where my crew was actively influencing the clouds was near Chernobyl, not only in the 30km zone, but out to a distance of 50, 70 and even 100 km.”

In the wake of the catastrophic meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, people in Belarus reported heavy, black-coloured rain around the city of Gomel. Shortly beforehand, aircraft had been spotted circling in the sky ejecting coloured material behind them.

Moscow has always denied that cloud seeding took place after the accident, but last year on the 20th anniversary of the disaster, Major Grushin was among those honoured for bravery. He claims he received the award for flying cloud seeding missions during the Chernobyl clean-up.

A second Soviet pilot, who asked not to be named, also confirmed to the programme makers that cloud seeding operations took place as early as two days after the explosion.

Alan Flowers, a British scientist who was one of the first Western scientists allowed into the area to examine the extent of radioactive fallout around Chernobyl, said that the population in Belarus was exposed to radiation doses 20 to 30 times higher than normal as a result of the rainfall, causing intense radiation poisoning in children.

Mr Flowers was expelled from Belarus in 2004 after claiming that Russia had seeded the clouds. He said: “The local population say there was no warning before these heavy rains and the radioactive fallout arrived.”

Imagine Earth without people

Saturday, November 4th, 2006

Bob Holmes, perhaps too gleefully, asks us to Imagine Earth without people:

Though modern buildings are typically engineered to last 60 years, bridges 120 years and dams 250, these lifespans assume someone will keep them clean, fix minor leaks and correct problems with foundations. Without people to do these seemingly minor chores, things go downhill quickly.

The best illustration of this is the city of Pripyat near Chernobyl in Ukraine, which was abandoned after the nuclear disaster 20 years ago and remains deserted. “From a distance, you would still believe that Pripyat is a living city, but the buildings are slowly decaying,” says Ronald Chesser, an environmental biologist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock who has worked extensively in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. “The most pervasive thing you see are plants whose root systems get into the concrete and behind the bricks and into doorframes and so forth, and are rapidly breaking up the structure. You wouldn’t think, as you walk around your house every day, that we have a big impact on keeping that from happening, but clearly we do. It’s really sobering to see how the plant community invades every nook and cranny of a city.”

With no one to make repairs, every storm, flood and frosty night gnaws away at abandoned buildings, and within a few decades roofs will begin to fall in and buildings collapse. This has already begun to happen in Pripyat. Wood-framed houses and other smaller structures, which are built to laxer standards, will be the first to go. Next down may be the glassy, soaring structures that tend to win acclaim these days. “The elegant suspension bridges, the lightweight forms, these are the kinds of structures that would be more vulnerable,” says Masterton. “There’s less reserve of strength built into the design, unlike solid masonry buildings and those using arches and vaults.”

But even though buildings will crumble, their ruins — especially those made of stone or concrete — are likely to last thousands of years. “We still have records of civilisations that are 3000 years old,” notes Masterton. “For many thousands of years there would still be some signs of the civilisations that we created. It’s going to take a long time for a concrete road to disappear. It might be severely crumbling in many places, but it’ll take a long time to become invisible.”

Wildlife defies Chernobyl radiation

Thursday, April 20th, 2006

Wildlife defies Chernobyl radiation:

The exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power station is teeming with life.

As humans were evacuated from the area 20 years ago, animals moved in. Existing populations multiplied and species not seen for decades, such as the lynx and eagle owl, began to return.

There are even tantalising footprints of a bear, an animal that has not trodden this part of Ukraine for centuries.

“Animals don’t seem to sense radiation and will occupy an area regardless of the radiation condition,” says radioecologist Sergey Gaschak.

“A lot of birds are nesting inside the sarcophagus,” he adds, referring to the steel and concrete shield erected over the reactor that exploded in 1986.

“Starlings, pigeons, swallows, redstart — I saw nests, and I found eggs.”

There may be plutonium in the zone, but there is no herbicide or pesticide, no industry, no traffic, and marshlands are no longer being drained.

There is nothing to disturb the wild boar — said to have multiplied eightfold between 1986 and 1988 — except its similarly resurgent predator, the wolf.

Pripyat Ghost Town

Thursday, March 18th, 2004

Pripyat Ghost Town tells a peculiar story, in broken English (with an almost audible Russian accent), about one young lady’s peculiar motorcyle tour — “a story about town where one can ride fast, with no stoplights, no police, no danger to hit some cage or some dog…” The town? Pripyat — four kilometers north of Chernobyl.

Very eerie. (Hat tip to Todd for the link.)

Edit: The original link has died. Here’s a newer link.