Bobtheoptimist, you’re right that 10CFR20, the US code governing radiation exposure, limits rad workers to 5 REM per year, and no more than 3 REM per quarter. But the limits for non-rad workers are lower, not higher, 500 mREM per year, no more than 300 mREM per quarter. Basically, the reasoning I recall was that rad workers know what they’re getting into, and have been screened for exposure.
As for passing through an area with active counts on a Geiger counter - that’s a lot harder to quantify the risk. First question is what was the counter reading, and how far away from the sources did it read that? I’ve used some very sensitive radiation dectection meters, that would give screaming counts off of bananas or porcelain, like what’s in a household toilet. But the radiation exposure from those sources were such that I’m not going to worry about using the toilet, or about eating bananas.
The problem with passing through the Chernobyl area these days, as Q.E.D. says, isn’t AIUI, the direct exposure that a person would get from passing through the area. What the problem is that the whole area is heavily contaminated.
There was a lot of particulate radioactive material released from the Chernobyl disaster. This dust, essentially, coated all the surfaces around the world - the closer one gets to the reactor the heavier the coating. Radioactive contamination is a source of radiation, but the real hazard is that since it’s usually a dust, it will be stirred up by walking on it, and so the person going through the area will become coated in the dust, and often breathe it in. Both of those things lead to internal exposure from radioisotopes, which is a far more dangerous thing than the same exposure outside of your skin.
There are essentially four kinds of radiation that are emitted from radioactive isotopes: [ul][li]alpha rays[/li][li]beta rays[/li][li]gamma rays[/li][li]neutrons[/ul][/li]
Going through in order:
Alpha rays are essentially helium nuclei moving at a fraction of the speed of light: They’re relatively heavy, and highly charged. They don’t travel far - because of their charge they interact with lots of things around them, and they can’t avoid transferring energy to the materiel around them. When this happens in a living biological system, it causes a lot of free radicals to be generated, which can really screw up metabolic processes.
When an alpha emitter is being held in your hand, you’re safe from it - the alpha particles can’t penetrate through the dead layers of skin cells to the living ones. But if you’ve got the same alpha emitter in your lungs, or gut, things get a lot different. Mucos deposits can be thick enough to protect, but they aren’t always. It’s hard to judge.
For most part radiation workers will go to great lengths to make sure that alpha emitters stay outside the body.
Beta rays are electrons (or positrons) moving at a signifigant fraction of the speed of light. Again, because they’re highly charged, they don’t travel all that far on their own. The training I got was that they’d be stopped by a normal thickness of clothing and one’s own dead skin layer again. Again, this goes right out the window if the beta (or beta positive) emitter is inside your body, and the damage will be concentrated nearest the source.
Gamma rats are photons of light, very high energy, but also less liable to concentrate damage to a body. The general rule of thumb I was taught for gamma rays is that 12 inches of water will reduce the amount of gamma radiation passing through it by about 90%. This is known as a tenth thickness - what comes through is about a tenth of what came into it.
But because the damage is so spread out, on a cellular level, from the gamma rays, it’s not as likely to concentrate damage above what a cell’s self-repair mechanisms can deal with. There are some practical reasons for why eating a gamma emitter is bad, but the short answer is that it really doesn’t matter what you do with one.
Finally neutron exposure - the problem with this is that neutrons can cause other things to go radioactive, if they’re absorbed into the nucleus of an atom. But because neutrons are chargeless they also have a much, much smaller chance of actually interacting with any specific pile of matter than any other kind of radiation. (Well, ignoring neutrinos)
But, again, there’s really not much difference between internal and external exposure with neutron emitters.
However, keeping alpha and beta emitters out of the body is a good idea. When talking about things like SR-90, which acts chemically like Calcium, and gets deposited into the bones, the damage that it can do to the active marrow can be devastatating.
Other things I’m not going to touch upon, now, are the effects of physical half lifes and biological half lifes.
To re-iterate, going through Chernobyl area without the proper anti-contamination gear isn’t likely to be quickly fatal, but it’s not a smart idea, either.
Which says nothing about the way that Ukrainian military may react to unauthorized persons on what’s now a militarily enforced exclusion area. Lead particulate contamination is even more of a problem than internal alpha and beta emitter contamination, if you want my opinion.