How well did the Russians understand radiation?

I just watched K-19: The Widowmaker for the second time. This film was panned for Harrison Ford’s poor Russian accent but I think the plot and suspense in it was actually extremely good. But my question concerns radiation.

The submarine in the film is powered by a small nuclear reactor. This reactor begins malfunctioning and the ship’s engineers are sent in (in 10-minute shifts) to repair it.

The men are wearing full rubber suits, boots, gloves, and a gas mask with a hood covering it. The men, at first, seem as if they don’t understand the effect of the radiation and how badly it will hurt them. The first guy goes in without much hesitation. When he comes out, he takes off his mask and his face is horribly disfigured. He begins vomiting. (Apparently the suit he was wearing offered very little protection.) At this moment, all the other men realize how bad it is. Were they not aware of this before?

Several men come into and go from the reactor, and every time each of them comes out, the other engineers (who are all standing around outside the reactor door wearing no protective clothing at all) grab the guy who had just emerged, holding him, helping him along, allowing him to lean on them, and carrying him into another room - all while he is still wearing the rubber suit which had just moments earlier been completely soaked in radiation. Why didn’t they think to get the guys out of the suits before carrying them around and letting them come into contact with all the other guys?

A recent thread about Chernobyl led me to believe that even in 1986 the Russians were not well aware of how dangerous radiation actually was. The movie takes place in 1961. How accurate is it? Did the Russians really think that it was OK for guys who had just been exposed to radiation to be physically mingling with a bunch of other guys?

Some things that I’ve read indicate the the Russian Navy had a very poor record for radiation safety. How much of that was ignorance and how much was indifference is hard to say. The Soviet Union had no shortage of bright physicists and other scientists, so I’d have to assume that they considered sailors to be expendable.

The Russians knew just as much about radiation as anyone else in the world and, by the time of Chernobyl, had also had more experience than anyone else in dealing with major accidents.

Russia also has a long history of throwing bodies at problems until they’re solved. It’s an admirable trait that many Soviets did in fact wade into such situations to solve a problem, basically laying down their lives for others. Of course, there were also plenty of people in the Soviet Union who were ignorant about radiation, just as there were (and still are) in the US and Europe, and no doubt some of the folks sent in to clean up the messes were unaware of the dangers they were running.

I would guess everybody knew, in the sense that they had knowledge that they were going to get hurt and most likely die in an incredibly unpleasant fashion. You can have a lot more courage when it’s competing with knowledge rather than a very graphic example right in front of you. To take radiation ignorance out of the question, just imagine a sailor being asked how well they do under torture before and after making them watch their shipmate get tortured – I would expect the second answer to be different and probably more humble.

Cowardice aside, graphic illustration of what’s going to happen to you cannot be pleasant regardless of what you do or do not know.

Well I just re-watched the scene in question and I realized I actually missed a part where they say that they had been supplied with chemical suits instead of radiation suits (explaining why the guys weren’t better protected.) Liam Neeson’s character actually says, “they might as well be wearing raincoats.” I guess I wasn’t paying attention the first time.

Does anyone know if that detail is historically accurate? If it is, that’s a pretty egregious failure to provide for the sailors. I’d think they’d at least know the difference between a radiation suit and an NBC suit - did they have a shortage of the former?

I’ve not seen the film so I working only on what’s been said in this thread and my knowledge of radiological protection - and even there I’m working from memory and it is good few years since I worked in this field.

It’s not clear from the posts what form of reactor malfunction we’re talking about - are we talking direct penetrating radiation - neutrons or secondary gamma rays - from the reactor core or a leak of activated material where the ingestion or alpha or beta emmitters is the problem. If it’s direct shine from the reactor the rubber suits are no use - but then neither would be a proper NBC suit. You can get lead aprons/suits and such like but these are normally to heavy to do serious work and anyway, lead does not stop neutrons - the principle radiation type from a nuclear reactor. The only way of limiting the dose is to limit the time of exposure and - from what you say about each sailor only doing 10 minutes - this is what they were trying to do.

If the problem is a leak of activated material I don’t see why the gas masks shouldn’t stop most particulates. Supporting this idea would be the need to kit them out in oversuits, boots, and hoods - presumably to avoid contamination of their clothing - but - as noted in the OP - then it does not make much sense if the other engineers immediately come in contact with the contaminated suits!

The symtoms you describe - immediate vomiting - suggest an absolutely massive whole body dose, vomiting is caused by damage to the gut but I don’t see how this ties up with the disfigured face. The only way I can think of to get a disfigured face - why just the face? - from radiation would be something like a beta burns (like massive sun burn) but I can’t think of a scenario for this.

All in all I think we just have film makers who don’t care about the facts - big surprise there :smiley:

On the level of knowledge regarding radiation hazards in the Soviet Union in the early 60’s I believe for the nuclear engineers and scientists - including the Soviet Naval engineering officers - it would have been as good as in in the West, that is, pretty good on the effects of exposure to high doses. I don’t think there was any lack of knowledge regarding high level exposures from the late 40s onward, the changes over recent years have been with regard to our acceptance of risk from low doses over the longer term.

Having said this the level of knowledge amongst the rest of the crew would likely be pretty low. The Soviet Navy was manned by conscripts and the training was focused on the specific job they were meant to do ( I have to confess my main source for information on the Soviet Navy is intensive reading of Tom Clancy books :smack: but it makes sense ) so they would probably know radiation was dangerous but be inclined trust - and obey - those in authority if told they were ok for a short time.

Chernobyl was a different matter. The fire crews and helicopter pilots knew exactly the danger they were in but decided to go ahead anyway to get the job done in the only way they could.

NBC = Nuclear, Biological, Chemical. Basically a military hazmat suit. It’s designed to stop you coming into physical contact with the relevant material so you can’t be contaminated (nuclear), poisoned (chemical) or infected (biological). Note the fine distinction regarding nuclear. NBC suits don’t stop you being irradiated, they just stop the radioactive substances getting into your clothes, skin, hair, lungs etc. The idea is that you hose down the NBC suit before taking it off and you are ‘clean’ of e.g. fallout so you can get to a radiation-free area and stop being irradiated. They are commonly available for military personnel to improve their survival rates in e.g. a nuclear war or chemical attack.

A ‘radiation suit’ would presumably be something like a suit of armour made out of lead that you could wear in a high-doseage area and which would prevent irradiation. To be honest I’ve never heard of such a thing, although it wouldn’t surprise me if they exist - presumably you could make a jumpsuit out of the same material that dentists x-ray aprons are made of. For high radiation levels they might need to be so thick that no-one could wear them and do anything useful?

I don’t recall anything like that being available at Chernobyl, certainly in the early days (a couple of people wore wetsuits to venture inside the building). I’ve seen a documentary on the nuclear industry in India where they dealt with a high-radiation leak by employing labourers from the local villages. Run down to the end of this corridor, pick up the wrench, spend 30 seconds working on the leaky pipe, drop the wrench, run back up the corridor, get $50, go back to your village having received a lifetimes’ worth of radiation, try not to need an x-ray ever again. Thinking about it, a good supply of lead lined suits would be a very handy thing to keep in various locations near any reactor.

In terms of how well the russians understood radiation - I’m guessing that since they were operating nuclear reactor on board a submarine carrying thermonuclear weapons, at some of them must have had a pretty good grasp of atomic science. And from wikipedia, K-19, aka “Widowmaker”, aka “Hiroshima” certainly must have been an unpopular posting. Over thirty years it had three horrible accidents and 55 people killed, plus 12 people trapped in an unpowered torpedo room for 24 days :eek:

It’s been a while since I saw the movie, but if I remember right, Peter Sarsgaard’s character was the sub’s fresh-out-of-school nuclear officer. (Liam Neeson expresses misgivings about having such a green nuclear officer before they even leave port.) Sarsgaard knew *exactly *how dangerous it was to go in for the repair with the suits they had on hand, which is why he refuses at first to go and cowers in terror. The senior officers know also about the danger, as you mentioned, but they are more seasoned sailors, and the bottom line is, if the reactor coolant leak isn’t fixed, they’re all dead anyway.

As far as not touching the guys who were just in doing the repairs, well - time was of the essence, and again they were all dead anyway if the repairs weren’t done quickly enough. After the first guys come out, everyone knows what they’ll be in for if they go in. Apart from getting people on the verge of collapse out of the way, I saw the others as offering simple human compassion to their fellow crewmates.

Why not have suits on hand to protect people? I gather that the early subs were extremely tight for space, American and Russian and Russian alike. How many lead-lined suits was anyone going to tote around, in the (hopefully rare) possibility that someone might need to effect repairs on a leaking reactor?

The average Russian sailor on the K-19, or the average Russian miner called in to help contain Chernobyl, were probably no more aware of exactly what would happen to them from the radiation than the typical American today would be. I’d expect them to know it that radiation was bad for you, but how to protect yourself, how long you could be exposed, or what the exact physical symptoms of radiation poisoning would be - no.

MarcusF, from what I remember of the movie, the reactor springs a coolant leak, so the reactor starts running dangerously hot. The sub crew are sent into a small chamber, two at a time, to try to repair the leaking pipes. They get totally soaking wet from the coolant water spurting out from the pipes and pooling on the chamber floor, but I don’t know just how close in proximity they are to the actual reactor at that point.

The impression I’ve gotten is that the Russian scientists definitely understood the dangers of radiation. In siome cases, though, they were under incredible pressure to produce working and competitive systems with the West, and were forced by that to do things and take risks the US and other countries would never consider.
As an example, I keep bringing up Chelyabinsk/Khyshtym, a nuclear disaster longer in the making and worse (n my opinion) that Chernobyl, although a LOT less publicized. The Soviets were storing high-level nuclear waste essentially untreated at the bottom of a lake. They had a series of problems with this, including what physicist Zhores Medvedev believed was a “mud volcano” when there was a thermal explosion, scattering lots of radioactive debris over a huge area, and later when the lake dried up and the nuclear material was left high and dry, and winds began to scatter the dust. Large areas were closed off. Anyone driving nearby was told to keep the car windows rolled up and to get through as quickly as possible.

Is it what the “Liquidators” wore at Chernobyl? Video of the Liquidators.

Pushkin - I’m at work and can’t access YouTube. Seem to think it might not be work related :smiley:

Jean Gray - from what you say - and a quick Google - it apears they were dealing with a breach of the primary coolant circuit so they were getting soaked with highly active water contaminated with fission products - not nice at all. I am still not sure what a “chemical suit” as opposed to a “radiation suit”. I would have thought a rubber suit and a respirator would have been some protection although there is not much point in it if you don’t decontaminate it (at least hose it down with clean water) when you leave the active area. Perhaps it was close enough to the reactor core for direct radiation to be a problem as well as the contamination but I would have thought any accessible compartment would be outside the primary containment and shielding.

Somebody with more recent experience might have an idea but I can’t think what sort of protective clothing could have been carried by the sub and been effective in this sort situation. For highly contaminated areas you would normally use a full air suit which I suppose could be carried on a sub but this is not going to do anything to stop external gamma and neutron radiation.

Former Navy radiation tech (ELT) here…

The whole “Radiation Suits” thing bothered me when I watched that movie.

When we were crawling around inside US Navy nuclear reactor compartments, we wore “Anti C’s” (Anti Contamination) coveralls. These coveralls were made of something like cotton and probably impregnated with something, but there was nothing special about those outfits that would have been any better than chemical suits.

We wore rubber gloves and booties and taped all openings on the suit, including taping the gloves/booties to the suit.

As others have noted, there is a difference between “contamination” and “radiation”
All the suits we wore did was protect against contamination.

And that’s all I ever saw in the U.S. Navy. As a radiation tech, I would have definitely been one of the first to know about other fancy “radiation suits” available to us.

The rest of the film was pretty scary, and it didn’t seem too bogus. Great film.

No. If there’s one thing to learn about heroism, it’s this: Your heroism is your boss’s future expectation. If the Soviets had refused to line up and die like that, the system would have been improved (either through improvements or collapse) and the sociopaths who expect heroism would have been out on their asses sooner.

That’s not much help if you and your friends are all dead in a radioactive submarine.

What is present in the primary coolant of a nuclear reactor, besides water? I’m assuming the casings of the fuel rods prevent any direct contact between the fuel and coolant. What does the high radiation flux inside the reactor do to the coolant?

Commiserations :wink:

This is the best image I could get in a pinch, seems rather flimsy for something that I thought might have been lead lined.

They look like the X-Ray Aprons I alluded to earlier. Not gonna do much for you in a high-radiation environment, I would think.

Pushkin - That looks like a lead lined apron over coveralls with a full face respirator. This will provide some protection - notice the apron covers the gonads! - but not much.

mks57 - good point - I can’t remember :eek: I will try and look it up.

Primary coolant is very pure water, with a few chemicals added to inhibit corrosion. There are several hazards associated with it, however…

[ul][]The gamma and neutron flux in the reactor causes the coolant itself to become radioactive. As a result, there are some unstable isotopes present with half lives on the order of seconds or minutes. Any shorter and the isotopes would decay within the reactor and not be a problem. Any longer (e.g. thousands of years) and the radiation produced would be such a low level that it wouldn’t be an issue. N-16 is one of the key isotopes of concern here.[]There are contaminants in the coolant that can be highly radioactive. There may be bits of Co-60 floating around in nooks and crannies of the primary coolant system.[]The coolant is under high pressure, and it has many gases in solution. As soon as you release the pressure, these gases come out of solution. They may be radioactive themselves.[/ul]And, in the case of a reactor accident:[ul][]If there has been a fuel element failure, the coolant will be full of highly radioactive fission fragments and life will be really bad.[/ul]

It’s also very hot in an operating or recently operating reactor, and a primary leak would be as steam.