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Old 05-10-2019, 11:46 PM
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Why didn't Chernobyl engineers don protective gear to inspect the reactor?


I watched the first episode of HBO's Chernobyl miniseries, and was astonished to see that the engineers, after first noticing that something was wrong with the reactor core, went to investigate it without putting on ANY kind of protective gear. Not only that, but even after they realize that there's been an explosion and that the plant is massively malfunctioning, they run around the various damaged rooms of the reactor exposing themselves to radioactive-contaminated water, smoke, and ash particles.

I thought maybe it was because they didn't know how dangerous a radiation accident could be, but they HAD to know, right? This was the 80s, it wasn't the dawn of the atomic era where they were figuring things out for the first time; they had decades of experience at this point.

Why would they take the risk of entering these highly hazardous environments without any form of radiation-resistant gear?

(Or is the show presenting an innacurate picture of how it went down?)
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Old 05-11-2019, 02:26 AM
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I don't know the history of the accident or of Soviet era safety standards, but I note that in the movie there was a constant theme of denial and a refusal to accept that the core was destroyed. So there was no need for protective gear-even asking for it was criticized as implying that things were more serious than the managers wanted them to be. I don't know but I am assuming that the movie tried to get their science and history right-and given what happened protective gear would not have helped anyway. It wasn't so much that the reactor exploded and showered the area with highly radioactive uranium, it was that the main part of the core didn't scatter-it was exposed to the air and was a solid mass of molten uranium. The gamma radiation from that mass must have been intense. Remember when they did get the radiation detectors out of the safe? One fried instantly and the second pegged at 200 Roentgens. Certainly lethal and lethal in minutes.
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Old 05-11-2019, 03:37 AM
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Everything I've read about it indicates that they were woefully unprepared and underequipped for an accident. The divers that were sent inside the reactor housing to drain the bubbler pool had regular wetsuits because there just wasn't anything better available.
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Old 05-11-2019, 04:19 AM
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Water is an excellent radiation blocker, so I am not sure they needed much more than wet suits.
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Old 05-11-2019, 04:21 AM
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Water is an excellent radiation blocker, so I am not sure they needed much more than wet suits.
Swimming in highly radioactive coolant water isn't so good, though.
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Old 05-11-2019, 04:29 AM
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The Tyvek suits you commonly see protect you from alpha radiation. Nothing, apart from lead (etc.) will protect you from gamma radiation.
Gamma radiation was the main cause for concern at Chernobyl. There are no lead suits. The people doing the clean-up knew they were fucked.

ETA: They did it anyway. "The lives of many......"

Last edited by Leaffan; 05-11-2019 at 04:31 AM.
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Old 05-11-2019, 04:28 PM
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Gamma needs 5 cm or 2 inches of lead to be safely blocked.
Make a suit which has 2 inches of lead behind it. Good luck.
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Old 05-11-2019, 04:46 PM
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Just for giggles.

Average surface area if an adult male = 19,000 cm2.
Volume of 2cm thick lead body suit = 38,000 cm3
Density of lead = 11.34 g/cm3
Total weight of suit = 430,920 grams

I guess you could cut things down a lot by just shielding the torso and head but we're still looking at maybe 200 kilos of lead...

ETA: Damn I misread inches for centimetres in AK84s post. So it's 2.5 times heavier than I said.

Last edited by lisiate; 05-11-2019 at 04:48 PM.
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Old 05-11-2019, 05:26 PM
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Gamma needs 5 cm or 2 inches of lead to be safely blocked.
Make a suit which has 2 inches of lead behind it. Good luck.
Those lead aprons at my dentist's office don't do squat?
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Old 05-11-2019, 05:28 PM
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Those lead aprons at my dentist's office don't do squat?
They are protecting againt low-energy X-rays. Even then, they probably don't completely block them, but it's better than nothing.
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Old 05-11-2019, 05:29 PM
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Those lead aprons at my dentist's office don't do squat?
The power core to a nuclear reactor has a little more oomph behind it than the x-ray device at the dentist's office.
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Old 05-11-2019, 05:32 PM
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Those lead aprons at my dentist's office don't do squat?
No. Other relevant things to consider are strength of radiation, not all gammas are equal and x rays are relatively less energetic, distance from source, and duration of exposure, which in x rays, is momentary.

5-6 CM is sufficient to reduce the amount of exposure for even high energy rays to about background levels.
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Old 05-11-2019, 05:39 PM
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Swimming in highly radioactive coolant water isn't so good, though.
Actually, it's safe, as long as you don't try swimming to the bottom where the fuel rods are.

XKCD What If speaks.
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Old 05-11-2019, 06:18 PM
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Actually, it's safe, as long as you don't try swimming to the bottom where the fuel rods are.
You do understand that the reactor core exploded, right? The fuel rods melted into a pile on the reactor floor and radioactive particles from the uncontrolled chain reaction went literally everywhere. Workers outside the reactor housing were only supposed to be exposed to the radiation for 40 seconds total, while wearing protective suits.
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Old 05-12-2019, 04:26 AM
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Swimming in highly radioactive coolant water isn't so good, though.
And yet two of the three workers who did this are still alive and well, and the third went on to live another twenty years before dying of heart failure at 65. One of the living workers, Alexey Ananenko, still works in the nuclear industry.
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Old 05-12-2019, 05:27 AM
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And yet two of the three workers who did this are still alive and well, and the third went on to live another twenty years before dying of heart failure at 65. One of the living workers, Alexey Ananenko, still works in the nuclear industry.
People can survive a lot of things that aren't good for them. What we do know is that the radiation was intense enough to turn the water acidic, so I stand by my earlier statement.
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Old 05-12-2019, 06:00 AM
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I thought it was because they knew they were fucked anyway. Did you see the look on those dude's faces when the boss guy said: "Call in more people"?
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Old 05-12-2019, 06:45 AM
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The body is actually quite good at handling high doses of radiation delivered over short durations (even as long as hours).

Damage and repair occur.

Over longer exposure periods, even modest increases in radiation cause incredible amounts of damage, death. Short and fast strong radiation exposure is better than long exposure to increased radiation levels.

.
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Old 05-12-2019, 10:46 AM
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Permit me to recommend Chernobyl: History of A Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy (Penguin) which gives a very detailed account.

Yes, there was a lot of denial on the part of bureaucrats. Much less on the part of those in the reactor control room.
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Old 05-12-2019, 02:17 PM
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Actually, it's safe, as long as you don't try swimming to the bottom where the fuel rods are.

XKCD What If speaks.
World of difference between the water in a spent fuel cooling pool, that is cleaned and its chemistry rigorously monitored, and the contaminated mess that those three firefighters had to wade through. AIUI, the area the firefighters swam had been contaminated with run off from cleanup efforts, so had no end of fine irradiated material and reactor material either dissolved or suspended within it or deposited on the bottom.

Not that spent pools are entirely innocuous. They can vary quite a bit, especially for things like Magnox fuel assemblies, depending on the fuel elements they contain and their susceptibility to varying corrosion modalities. Something I was unaware of.This 1982 survey from the IAEA has a decent compilation of compositions for spent fuel pools, starting at page 29.

Coolant within the primary coolant loop of a PWR is another substance that, while largely water to a very high degree of purity (along with other things to aid corrosion resistance and neutron moderation like boric acid salts and corrosion inhibitors.), nonetheless itself can be quite radioactive from neutron activation. Especially highly bio-available isotopes such as tritium. See, e.g., chapter 5 of "Radiochemistry in Nuclear Power Reactors (1996).

I think I've linked to this radiation dose calculator before. Play around yourself with various point sources of gamma, and how much shielding is required to attenuate the radiation flux to a desired level.
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Old 05-12-2019, 02:32 PM
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The body is actually quite good at handling high doses of radiation delivered over short durations (even as long as hours).

Damage and repair occur.

Over longer exposure periods, even modest increases in radiation cause incredible amounts of damage, death. Short and fast strong radiation exposure is better than long exposure to increased radiation levels...
The ultimate of your last point is probably Anatoly Bugorski, who stuck his head inadvertently in a running particle accelerator. The beam had an estimated energy of 76 GeV. Per this statement by a Stanford engineering grad student (quickest cite I could find) Bugorski was estimated to have received a radiation dose of 300,000 rads (3,000 Gray). To his head. Normal whole body, rapid onset dose where 50% mortality is expected within 30 days is four Sievert or so. Gray refers to the dose absorbed, Sievert to that dose's effect on biological tissue. Often equivalent.

(I quibble with the use of rad for Dr. Bugorski's dose mainly because I don't think his tissues absorbed the energy so much as they slightly attenuated the proton beam on its way out his skull. I have no idea how many Sievert he picked up from this accident, but I doubt it was 3,000. Still enough to permanently paralyze half his face, as well as lead to permanent neurological deficits. He did recover sufficiently from the accident to earn his PhD )
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Old 05-12-2019, 07:08 PM
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Those lead aprons at my dentist's office don't do squat?
If you are old enough, you might remember that dentists used to leave the room when you were having a mouth x-ray. And there is a medical joke that you should stand behind the radiographer while your patient is x-rayed, because radiographers are "x-ray opaque".... or perhaps because radiographers stand out of the beam, in the direction of least leakage, when doing an x-ray.
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Old 05-12-2019, 07:15 PM
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If you are old enough, you might remember that dentists used to leave the room when you were having a mouth x-ray. ...
Don't they still? Mine does.
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Old 05-12-2019, 08:22 PM
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Mine isn't even around for the x-rays, the hygienists does those these days, and she leaves the room, too.
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Old 05-12-2019, 08:38 PM
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The difference between getting one x-ray every year or two, and giving a couple of x-rays every day is pretty large. You have to be in the room when you get that x-ray, because that's how x-rays work. The technician giving the x-rays doesn't, and so there's no good reason for them to be in the room, even if it probably wouldn't give them cancer even after a 20 year career of giving x-rays every day.
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Old 05-12-2019, 09:44 PM
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So basically there is no such thing as a suit that will protect you from the kind of radiation that would be caused by a nuclear meltdown? You would basically have to be in a lead box?
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Old 05-12-2019, 10:01 PM
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If you're near exposed parts of the reactor core, yeah, pretty much - a lead box with VERY thick walls. More of a lead bunker.
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Old 05-12-2019, 10:53 PM
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So basically there is no such thing as a suit that will protect you from the kind of radiation that would be caused by a nuclear meltdown? You would basically have to be in a lead box?
I think it's been linked already but the factors to consider in determining how to minimize radiation exposure are: Distance, Shielding, and Time. To answer your question, we need to know how far away from the radiation source are you? Opening a door to the reactor room, post explosion, and staring at radiating fuel elements, is different than sitting in a Mi-8 2500 feet over the core, taking overhead photos.

What shielding is between you and it? Sandia Labs had one of their stereotypically baroque experimental apparatus for testing robots in an ultra high gamma environment. I think they used something like feet of earth, lead, and concrete. This attenuated much of the gamma flux.

How long are you exposed? The bio robots at Chernobyl had something like 45 seconds to run from shelter, scoop up a piece of graphite moderator, huck it off the roof, and return to safety. 45 minutes? They'd die horribly. As many personnel did, of course. Even the elephants foot, even at 300 Sv/hr dosage rate at X distance, still would allow a brief glimpse, say 5-10 seconds, without certain death.

Don't ingest any material, of course. Gamma is bad enough, but IIRC, internal alpha can have a much higher Sv/Gy ratio, if you allow it to pass your skin. Like if you breath in the right size dust. Of course, many alpha emitters, that finely divided, are going to do their best to give you heavy metal poisoning too.
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Old 05-13-2019, 06:47 AM
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The Tyvek suits you commonly see protect you from alpha radiation.
It also protects you from radioactive contamination, i.e. getting radioactive material on your skin and clothes. And contamination can be a larger risk in the long run - when you inhale or ingest radioactive materials, it stays in your body, emitting radiation right next to your cells.

Of course you'd want to combine the tyvek suit with a good mask, and tape up all the gaps.
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Old 05-13-2019, 07:40 AM
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I've seen this episode too.

Clearly some of them at the beginning didn't realize the extent of the problem, especially since their boss was in full denial mode (*). After that, they knew if only from seeing their colleagues droping like flies and vomiting blood. They did that because they had too. For instance the guys who apparently died turning valves. Just heroism.



I rather liked the episode, but I'm left wondering if they didn't exagerate a bit the general incompetence for effect.



(*)By the way I was amazed that the engineers inside a power plant might have no clue that the core had exploded. I somehow assumed that it would have been immediately obvious when in fact they didn't know for apparently hours and had to sent guys on the roof to check.
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Old 05-13-2019, 07:56 AM
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(*)By the way I was amazed that the engineers inside a power plant might have no clue that the core had exploded. I somehow assumed that it would have been immediately obvious when in fact they didn't know for apparently hours and had to sent guys on the roof to check.
I think it's called denial.

Denial that the accident was that serious. Denial that they were probably going to die.

I haven't seen this (yet) but I've read accounts of the accident. Apparently at one point some of the people on site were trying to measure the radiation in the area. They went through several detectors, all of them indicating off the scale, and kept discarding one and picking up another more or less muttering that this thing must be broken because it's off the scale... failing to consider that ALL their machines were actually reporting the radiation levels accurately.

It's not at all unusual for there to be a period of denial when a catastrophe starts.
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Old 05-13-2019, 08:44 AM
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Another good book on the subject is Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbothan
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Old 05-13-2019, 08:45 AM
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I think it's called denial.

Denial that the accident was that serious. Denial that they were probably going to die.

I haven't seen this (yet) but I've read accounts of the accident. Apparently at one point some of the people on site were trying to measure the radiation in the area. They went through several detectors, all of them indicating off the scale, and kept discarding one and picking up another more or less muttering that this thing must be broken because it's off the scale... failing to consider that ALL their machines were actually reporting the radiation levels accurately.

It's not at all unusual for there to be a period of denial when a catastrophe starts.
According to the movie, there were 3 types of radiation detectors available to the crew the night of the explosion. Cheap ones that everyone had access to that pegged at 3.6 Sv. Dangerous but not immediately deadly. So when all the available meters read the same thing, everyone said hmm well it is serious but not a catastrophe at that level. Oops. The better detectors were literally locked in a safe to keep them from being stolen. No one there in the middle of the night had a key. When they finally did get the key, the first detector literally failed as soon as it was turned on. So no one considered that reading (pegged) as realistic. The other good meter didn't break-but it pegged at 300 Sv and no one believed that since it was just one detector. Then people started falling over. That finally got people's attention-after the entire local fire brigade was wiped out. You would think that the fire brigade nearest an active nuclear power plant would have it's own radiation detectors. If anyone needed them they would. Apparently not.
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Old 05-13-2019, 08:45 AM
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Originally Posted by Philster View Post
The body is actually quite good at handling high doses of radiation delivered over short durations (even as long as hours).

Damage and repair occur.

Over longer exposure periods, even modest increases in radiation cause incredible amounts of damage, death. Short and fast strong radiation exposure is better than long exposure to increased radiation levels.

.
Just spent a month and a couple weeks getting 54 Gy a day/26 doses ... very tightly targeted doses [as in they tattooed 3 aiming points on me, and bitchen me out when I would lose as little as a kilo, when I dropped 9 kilo in a week and almost croaked they had to recalculate the targetting.]
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It also protects you from radioactive contamination, i.e. getting radioactive material on your skin and clothes. And contamination can be a larger risk in the long run - when you inhale or ingest radioactive materials, it stays in your body, emitting radiation right next to your cells.

Of course you'd want to combine the tyvek suit with a good mask, and tape up all the gaps.
Been there, done that [worked in nuke plants repairing them] Trained for every contract no matter how many I had previously done [I think I can still recite the CFRs in my sleep ...] and part of the training is getting into and out of anticontamination gear safely. Unlike the guys I worked with who were happy in tighty whities, I used a bathing suit as my underwear ... though the guys on my shift got told to get trunks, though personally I wouldn't have cared if they had gone commando [naked doesn't bother me, though some guys would benefit from having the pelt on their backs and asses waxed or at least shaven!]

I can report that the radiation from the spent rod pool is lovely [access in to Ginnea in Rochester is a catwalk over the pool] and one contract the only safe place for me to stand while recording numbers was a single square of just over a meter by just under a meter with my back to the reactor shielding dome ... and I had a limit of 15 minutes per 24 hour period. That contract I 'burnt' my exposure limit for the year in 3 months.

I actually can't wait for the next general monitoring session I have in a year, I can report an amazing amount of exposure now =) I swear, I could probably work in a pitcheblend mine and get less occupational exposure =)
  #35  
Old 05-13-2019, 10:29 AM
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I recall one article about the disaster which mentioned the "bridge of death". There was a bridge in the nearby town with a good view of the reactor building. When things went haywire, quite a few people went out onto th bridge to watch the spectacle. They were quite a few hundred meters (a kilometer or more?) from the reactor, but I think they were in the downwind path. The cloud of radioactive fine particles and smoke went up and across Poland and Scandinavia sickening field workers in Poland and setting off radiation alarms in Sweden (setting off a serious concern there until the people monitoring realized the alarms were stronger outside the plant than in it...)

Everyone who stood on that bridge died.

Supposedly, quit a few people who had the nuclear training and who saw the damage knew they were effectively dead men, but they kept on working.

Last edited by md2000; 05-13-2019 at 10:31 AM.
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Old 05-13-2019, 12:05 PM
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I've seen this episode too.

Clearly some of them at the beginning didn't realize the extent of the problem, especially since their boss was in full denial mode (*). After that, they knew if only from seeing their colleagues droping like flies and vomiting blood. They did that because they had too. For instance the guys who apparently died turning valves. Just heroism.



I rather liked the episode, but I'm left wondering if they didn't exagerate a bit the general incompetence for effect.



(*)By the way I was amazed that the engineers inside a power plant might have no clue that the core had exploded. I somehow assumed that it would have been immediately obvious when in fact they didn't know for apparently hours and had to sent guys on the roof to check.

I'm quite looking forward to seeing this show myself. I'm a Mechanical Engineer, and my father's career as the same took place in the nuclear industry in Canada. I well remember the incident from when I was a teen and my dad having lots of not-then- public info to review.

I haven't seen the show yet, but I read a book written by insiders from "behind the iron curtain" - the denial was so strong that it wasn't until a helicopter survey that the official story changed. That chapter of the book was titled "The Myth of the Intact Reactor Building". This was a book published by the Russians in the late 80s which my dad gave me to read when I was about 44 or so.

As I recall, the first 2 inspectors to go into the reactor building reported seeing stars through the absent roof, but they were flat out ignored/disbelieved.
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Old 05-13-2019, 12:31 PM
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Supposedly, quit a few people who had the nuclear training and who saw the damage knew they were effectively dead men, but they kept on working.
Well, yeah - if you're dead anyway you just might keep working so someone else doesn't have to die doing the necessary work.
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Old 05-13-2019, 03:37 PM
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If you are old enough, you might remember that dentists used to leave the room when you were having a mouth x-ray. And there is a medical joke that you should stand behind the radiographer while your patient is x-rayed, because radiographers are "x-ray opaque".... or perhaps because radiographers stand out of the beam, in the direction of least leakage, when doing an x-ray.
Dentists and technicians still leave the room while you are x-rayed. That has not changed in this universe - the one where Spock is clean-shaven.
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Old 05-13-2019, 08:16 PM
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Yeah, but the noise from windmills can cause cancer, so Chernobyl wasn't so bad
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Old 05-13-2019, 10:39 PM
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Dentists and technicians still leave the room while you are x-rayed. That has not changed in this universe - the one where Spock is clean-shaven.
Actually, I just had a dental x-ray, the the technician used a battery-operated, hand-held x-ray generator. The new, digital sensors must be really sensitive!
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Old 05-13-2019, 11:49 PM
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Actually, I just had a dental x-ray, the the technician used a battery-operated, hand-held x-ray generator. The new, digital sensors must be really sensitive!
And/or the new, lithium-ion batteries are really powerful!
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Old 05-14-2019, 01:14 AM
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So basically there is no such thing as a suit that will protect you from the kind of radiation that would be caused by a nuclear meltdown? You would basically have to be in a lead box?
*During * a meltdown?

Forget about the gamma radiation, a mere 5-10cm of lead will attenuate that down to safe levels.

You need to worry about the neutron flux, shielding against that requires not only different materials, but which materials work best vary depending on the source/energy of the neutrons. To shield against what an active meltdown emits, you would need about 2 meters of water, *then* 5cm of lead. Just having the water, or just having the lead, will not stop very much.
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Old 05-14-2019, 01:43 AM
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Oil will protect you better than water, right? That's why handling rooms for handling materials removed from a reactor (and doing the chemistry to separate out plutonium, etc) use these remote waldos that can take the radiation and oil windows.

It would be possible to build some kind of vehicle, where the vehicle is on treads, powered by a towed cable, and an operator is onboard in a shielded cab, viewing the world through oil filled windows. They'd use the same waldos they use in fuel handling rooms, maybe scaled up, which evidently protect their electronics so they won't fry like robots will.

To be fair, this doesn't solve getting up a set of stairs to the roof or into confined spaces.

What you need are robots able to do all this but with protected electronics so they can survive.

Last edited by SamuelA; 05-14-2019 at 01:44 AM.
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Old 05-14-2019, 05:39 AM
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Originally Posted by Broomstick View Post
I think it's called denial.

Denial that the accident was that serious. Denial that they were probably going to die.

I wasn't surprised that they were in denial. I was surprised that what had happened wasn't obvious. That they couldn't tell just by looking at their pannels or whatever. That they could believe it was some entirely different and minor incident after the reactor's core had blown out. That they had to send someone on a roof, hours later, to realize what had really happened. I was amazed that it was *possible* to be in denial.

For instance, if it had been a leak or something, them thinking "Oh, it's just a minor leak, nothing to be worried about" when in reality it was a huge leak with potentially terrible consequences would have seemed normal. But that they couldn't tell from the control room (and not even after sending some people to investigate, in fact) that the reactor had been destroyed seems incredible. Wouldn't you expect this kind of thing to be readily noticeable?
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Last edited by clairobscur; 05-14-2019 at 05:40 AM.
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Old 05-14-2019, 05:46 AM
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Originally Posted by md2000 View Post
I recall one article about the disaster which mentioned the "bridge of death". There was a bridge in the nearby town with a good view of the reactor building. When things went haywire, quite a few people went out onto th bridge to watch the spectacle. They were quite a few hundred meters (a kilometer or more?) from the reactor, but I think they were in the downwind path. The cloud of radioactive fine particles and smoke went up and across Poland and Scandinavia sickening field workers in Poland and setting off radiation alarms in Sweden (setting off a serious concern there until the people monitoring realized the alarms were stronger outside the plant than in it...)
They show the bridge scene in the series. That everybody is going to die hence is a spoiler .


From the series (don't know if it's accurate), the reactor looks like it's much farther than 1 km. I'd guess 4 or 5.
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Old 05-14-2019, 05:48 AM
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Originally Posted by clairobscur View Post
But that they couldn't tell from the control room (and not even after sending some people to investigate, in fact) that the reactor had been destroyed seems incredible. Wouldn't you expect this kind of thing to be readily noticeable?
When they started noticing chunks of the reactor's graphite structure lying around on the ground yeah, they started realizing "oh yeah, we're fucked" but since it was the middle of the night it was hard to see the stuff.

Sure, looking back it's obvious but history is full of catastrophes where people spent amazing amounts of time denying the emergency and/or its extent.

Last edited by Broomstick; 05-14-2019 at 05:49 AM.
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Old 05-14-2019, 06:34 AM
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Originally Posted by Broomstick View Post
When they started noticing chunks of the reactor's graphite structure lying around on the ground yeah, they started realizing "oh yeah, we're fucked" but since it was the middle of the night it was hard to see the stuff.
.
Well, that they needed to see the chunk of graphite is unbelievable. I mean, if your car runs out of oil, you're warned, but when your reactor's core explodes, nothing? Not a even a flashing light with "you're all fucked" on it?
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Old 05-14-2019, 06:59 AM
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So basically there is no such thing as a suit that will protect you from the kind of radiation that would be caused by a nuclear meltdown? You would basically have to be in a lead box?
Gold would do just as well. Try selling that to those tasteful people like the third world dictators who fancy gold taps, golden toilets, gold guns and golden cutlery.
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Old 05-14-2019, 07:17 AM
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[...]

To be fair, this doesn't solve getting up a set of stairs to the roof or into confined spaces.

What you need are robots able to do all this but with protected electronics so they can survive.
Can you tame Daleks?
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Old 05-14-2019, 08:30 AM
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Denial was a serious problem for the Soviet system. Although all institutions are conservative in releasing information in an emergency, the Soviets took it to a whole new level. First, "causing a panic" will end a career, even if it later turns out to be the correct action. If the situation turns out to be not as bad as first thought, then you most likely get jail time, too. SOVIET-style jail time. On top of all this is the ideological dimension. Even from Lenin's day, reporting bad news in the press was bad because it was seen as criticism of the government. Lenin himself said that the press existed for the purpose of championing the government. So no matter how bad things got, no one was going to rock the boat out of sheer cultural pressure.
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