A New Disaster is Unfolding in Chernobyl

Update: A reader with some experience working on nuclear weapons in the military, was kind enough to provide some more specific information about the radiation risks in Chernobyl, so this essay has been updated accordingly.

Thirty-six years ago, a combination of defective Soviet technology, poor planning, and an all-encompassing need to please the communist bureaucracy unleashed hundreds of tons of radioactive poison. The atomic explosion at Chernobyl* admittedly killed hundreds of people and poisoned food and water supplies throughout much of Europe. A huge swath of the rolling wheatfields of Ukraine now left fallow and untenable are an unmistakable reminder of everything wrong with Soviet communism. But that is not the end of the nuclear nightmare. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has now unearthed radiation that will kill hundreds, if not thousands, of his soldiers. The problem is not a new radiation release from the entombed Chernobyl plant. Instead, it’s the radiation lying in wait underground for the past 36 years, waiting to kill those who disturb it.

The 10th anniversary of the catastrophic meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was a big news story. In 1996, I was one of only two reporters inside the 30 km wide “Zone of Estrangement,” an area forbidden to the outside world. We had previously broadcast the story of a Swedish missionary who provided critically needed medical aid to the families of the Ukrainian firefighters who died fighting the atomic fire at the plant. His contacts got us inside the control room of the then still-operating reactor number three at the Chernobyl plant ten years after reactor number four exploded.

Thirty-six years ago, among other poisons, the meltdown released two highly radioactive elements, strontium 90 and cesium 137. A high percentage of that fallout fell within 10 km of the plant. Radiation does not last forever. Radioactive elements have half-lives. During each half-life, the radioactive element loses half of its poisonous power. Strontium 90 and cesium 137 both have half-lives of about 30 years. That means 36 years after the meltdown; they are still about 35% 43.5% as poisonous as they were the night the plant exploded. That night, they killed the firemen at the plant within hours. They have now reemerged to kill again.

The actual radiation danger above ground level at Chernobyl now is not exceptionally hazardous. Seasonal rains carried the fallout deep into the soil. As it seeped down into the underlying ground, the dirt above it provided some shielding for those at surface level. In terms of actual radiation levels, it’s about 500 counts per minute** anywhere within 10 km of the plant. In downtown Kyiv, it’s 80 counts per minute. But that’s not excessive. The radiation level in Denver is about the same as in Kyiv because radiation comes from many sources, including the sun. As the mile-high city, Denver is simply closer to the sun’s radiation source.

The 500 counts per minute level at the small town of Chernobyl is certainly not conducive to the best health but it is livable. Buildings there have high-efficiency air filtration systems to try to keep the interior as radiation-free as possible.

But serious problems begin when you start to disturb the ground. The strontium 90 and cesium 137 that seeped into the ground are still there. Even at 35%43.5%. they are still admitting very dangerous levels of a poison that no one can taste, see, smell, or feel. For example, in 1996, workers at the plant were building a new barbed wire fence. They dug holes about 2 feet deep for the support posts. The dirt extracted from the post holes measured anywhere from 5000 to 7500 counts per minute. The hazmat specialist who was with us said the deeper anyone dug, the higher the level of expected radiation.

Image: Chernobyl’s exploded fourth reactor by Joker345. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Putin’s forces overran the plant on February 24. In building their defensive positions, Putin’s troops dug foxholes, 6-foot-deep trenches, and revetment for tanks and artillery pieces into the earth south and west of the plant. They used bulldozers to dig deep into the dirt to push up protective berms.

The Pripyat River and marshy ground surrounding the river protect the plant against ground attacks from the north and east. But the Russians knew they had to defend against any Ukrainian avenue of attack from the west and south. We can only estimate the radioactive level of the dirt they unearthed as they dug holes to protect themselves. Best estimates predict radiation levels between 5000 and 10,000 counts per minute. The foxholes that protected them against the expected incoming Ukrainian counterattack also wrapped them in radioactive poison.

The fatality level in radiation poisoning is not determined by just the exposure level but also the time of exposure. The degree of deadly effect is a combination of the dosage level, those 5000 to 10,000 counts per minute, multiplied by the time the soldiers were irradiated. Our hazmat advisor recommended spending no more than a couple of minutes near that post hole. The Russian soldiers lived and slept in their foxholes and trenches 24 hours a day. That’s a month of living inside a radioactive cauldron.

Extended exposures at that 5000-10,000 counts level are not survivable. The fact that the Russian soldiers surrounding the plant developed symptoms this quickly indicates their fatally high level of accumulated exposure.

If you ever wondered how real this radiation poisoning is, the six firefighters who died from the radiation poisoning the night of the explosion had to be buried in lead-lined coffins to protect other people walking through the graveyard in the future.

There are some treatments for radiation exposure. Potassium Iodide and Prussian Blue capsules provide limited protection from low to moderate radiation exposure. However, the total radiation dosage Russian soldiers received far exceeds the ability of these medicines to provide any help.

The Russians admit they treated 200 soldiers for radiation poisoning. That is probably only a small percentage of those affected. There were probably at least 800 to 1000 Russian soldiers committed to defending Chernobyl from the Ukrainians. Others were there for limited times. Russians who received less but still deadly doses will not develop symptoms for weeks, months or even years. When they do, we can be sure Putin will not announce it to the world.

Another fate awaits Russian soldiers who received less than fatal doses. In 1986, communist officials forced at least 30,000 Soviet citizens living near the Chernobyl plant to move in the aftermath of the explosion. They were given six hours warning to collect a few belongings and then were bussed throughout the USSR.

The Russians did not allow anyone to keep records regarding their disposition or future medical conditions. Even today, there is no history of how many of them died due to the 1986 radiation poisoning. One Russian doctor with close Kremlin connections estimates more than 100,000 people have died due to radiation-caused cancers following the first Chernobyl radiation exposure.***

Now, the aftermath of everything wrong with dictatorial Russia has struck again. What will happen to those irradiated Russian soldiers who were exposed to the re-awakened Chernobyl disaster? Unfortunately, like so many things in Putin’s Russia, neither we nor the Russian people will ever be allowed to know.

Ed Sherdlu is the pen name of a former CBS television network reporter. He uses a pen name because his mother would be so embarrassed to know that Ed’s 12-Step Journalism Recovery Program had been a failure.

(This article has been updated to correct the number of years that have passed since the Chernobyl disaster.)

* The explosion wasn't "atomic" in the strictest sense. Instead, the explosion was caused by the uncontrolled power pulse and resultant internal pressure increase as the graphite moderators were forced back into the overheated core when the reactor operators scrammed the reactor by pushing the A5 button.  That over-pressure ruptured the reactor, which led to graphite fires.

** The reader was concerned that "counts per minute" lacked a precise definition of what was being measured (REMs, milliREMs, etc.). This article, however, wasn't striving for such precision. Instead, it was intended only to show how far radiation measures at Chernobyl, which were on the officer's radiation measuring tool, deviated from safe measurements, regardless of precisely what was being measured. For that reason, a soldier exposed to abnormally high amounts for several weeks, regardless of the type of unit being measured, would be at serious risk. 

*** The reader reminded me of something with which I heartily concur: Employed correctly, nuclear power is one of the most ecologically sound sources of power available -- and the next generation of nuclear reactors will be even more so.

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