Did Russians really get sick from radiation at the Chernobyl reactor site?
Probably not – at least, not from radiation they might have received from digging trenches and walking around on the site. But let’s go back a bit….
A little over a year ago, you might remember news that Russian troops had occupied the Chernobyl nuclear reactor site for several weeks, were digging defensive trenches, and then they left – one of the reasons floating around online was that some of the troops were suffering from radiation sickness, presumably from exposure to residual contamination from the 1986 reactor accident. What wasn’t as well-reported were the stories explaining why this was unlikely, nor much reporting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) statements to the same point. What I’d like to do here is to give a little more information so you can understand why this whole scenario is highly unlikely and why I tend to give a lot of credence to the IAEA’s conclusion.
Pripyat lies abandoned with the Chernobyl facility visible in the distance
First – there’s no doubt that Chernobyl dumped a lot of radioactivity into the environment and that there is still residual radioactivity on the reactor site today. In fact, there are radiation monitors throughout Ukraine (and especially around the Chernobyl site), although accessing them is neither as easy or as reliable as was the case before the invasion. But the Chernobyl site is one of the most heavily instrumented sites in the world and environmental radiation measurements have been collected and reported for over a half-century – we have a very good knowledge of radiation levels at the surface, and how much radioactivity is present at and below the surface. And, for what it’s worth, I’ve met a number of colleagues (and even one former student) who have visited the Chernobyl site and have told me that the outdoors radiation levels they’ve measured are consistent with what’s been reported by the various agencies and automated instruments.
The fundamental question, then, is whether or not the Russian soldiers could have unknowingly been exposed to radiation levels high enough to cause radiation sickness.
It takes about 100 rem to give a person radiation sickness, and that’s if the dose occurs in a relatively short period of time. So… 100 rem divided by 24 hours (let’s make it 25 to make the math even simpler) comes out to a dose rate of about 4 rem per hour – this is what it would take to induce radiation sickness.
- Is that a high dose rate? Well – yes – that’s nearly one million times the radiation dose rate I’m measuring in my living room as I write this (my radiation detector is showing 5 micro-rem an hour at the moment).
- Is it possible to get a dose rate that high? Sure – I’ve measured dose rates well in excess of 4 rem/hr in the past and I know people who have been exposed to dose rates of well over 100 rem/hr. The thing is, all of us were completely safe because we were measuring the dose rates, keeping track of our total dose, and we left before we got enough exposure to be dangerous.
- Is it likely that any of the soldiers was actually exposed to 4 rem/hr? No – certainly not from walking over the soil – and almost certainly not from digging into it. Again – this site is one of the most heavily measured sites in the world and radiation levels have not been anywhere close to those levels for decades. Not only that, but even a layer of contamination a few feet underground would show itself in the form of elevated dose rate readings on the surface. Consider – six inches of soil reduces radiation dose rates by a factor of about 10 (give or take a little), so there would have to be a layer of contaminated soil at least 6 feet underground for the extra radiation to go unnoticed by those surveying the surface. This is not what we have seen.
We’ve seen things like this before. After the Fukushima accident, for example, a number of sailors on the USS Ronald Regan fell ill and blamed it on radiation from the reactor accident. Except that many of the symptoms they mentioned suffering from in their complaint are not consistent with radiation exposure and the ones that can be caused by radiation (e.g. nausea, loss of appetite, loss of energy) are also caused by anxiety, stress, the flu, and a host of other ills. Not only that, but the Navy is very good about controlling radiation exposure on its ships – and at monitoring the radiation exposure that its people receive. There is virtually no chance that radiation caused the illnesses the Regan sailors described – just as there is virtually no chance that radiation caused any illnesses among the Russians. More likely is that the radiation became a pretext for unhappy soldiers to leave an area (or a war) that frightened them, or that the stress the soldiers were under caused some of the health problems the soldiers experienced. I guess I should note, too, that even ingesting or inhaling contaminated soil wouldn’t cause these problems – not, at least, unless they filled their lungs (or stomachs) with soil…and that would cause other issues.
There is one plausible scenario that comes to mind that might have led to radiation sickness (although there’s no indication that this happened) – if some soldiers decided to enter the old reactor building. There are some areas deep inside in which radiation dose rates are genuinely dangerous. But, because of the danger they pose, these areas are well-marked and locked away. It’s not impossible…but it’s highly unlikely that anyone could get into these areas without knowing they were entering into a dangerous place. But to get radiation sickness from digging trenches…I’m dubious.
One last comment seems to be in order here since we see claims like this from time to time. Remember – to develop radiation sickness takes a lot of exposure (about 100 rem or more) delivered in a relatively short period of time (generally a day or less) – and then it still takes days or weeks to actually manifest itself. And then think about the likelihood of someone being exposed to so much radiation – a million times higher than what we normally see – for an entire day, as well as the likelihood that these high radiation levels might have gone unnoticed. Most of the time…not very likely.