Overview: Mass Radiation Exposure

Author: Richard Denton, MD
Disclaimer: I am a medical doctor and will concentrate on the medical aspects. I have no conflict of interest as some nuclear physicists might who are paid by the nuclear industry.

Radiation is one of the six crises that this Platform addresses; each one could annihilate civilization as we know it. Radiation could do so in either an acute or chronic manner. The acute effects would come from a major accident, miscalculation, or terrorist attack or an actual nuclear war. The chronic effects are killing by inducing cancers and other medical conditions.

Radiation exposure is of course related to the other five global threat scenarios. Radiation is interconnected as part of a nuclear war that would immediately kill millions from radiation. A nuclear bomb is not just a bigger better bomb but emits radiation that kills locally and at a distance over time. Because of its power, it would put dust and smoke into the stratosphere that would cause a decrease of the sun’s penetration. A “nuclear winter” would result, causing death of millions by famine. Some people suggest that nuclear power is “green” —even the answer to climate change. But nuclear power plants could be a target of terrorists using cyberwarfare or crashing an airliner into a reactor.

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Author: Richard Denton, MD

15 thoughts on “Overview: Mass Radiation Exposure

  1. Gigantic, mysterious radiation leak traced to facility in Russia
    By Ruby Prosser Scully . TECHNOLOGY July 29, 2019

    The source of a gigantic, mysterious leak of radioactive material that swept across Europe in 2017 has been traced to a Russian nuclear facility, which appears to have been preparing materials for experiments in Italy.

    The leak released up to 100 times the amount of radiation into the atmosphere that the Fukushima disaster did. Italian scientists were the first to raise the alarm on 2 October, when they noticed a burst of the radioactive ruthenium-106 in the atmosphere. This was quickly corroborated by other monitoring laboratories across Europe.

    Georg Steinhauser at Leibniz University Hannover in Germany says he was “stunned” when he first noticed the event. Routine surveillance detects several radiation leaks each year, mostly of extremely low levels of radionuclides used in medicine. But this event was different.

    “The ruthenium-106 was one of a kind. We had never measured anything like this before,” says Steinhauser. Even so, the radiation level wasn’t high enough to impact human health in Europe, although exposure closer to the site of release would have been far greater.

    Read more: HBO’s Chernobyl drama highlights the human cost of nuclear catastrophe
    The Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Security in Paris soon concluded that the most probable source of the leak was between the Volga river and Ural mountains in Russia. This is where Russia’s Mayak facility is located. The site, which includes a plant that processes spent nuclear fuel, suffered the world’s third most serious nuclear accident in 1957.

    At the time of the 2017 leak, Russian officials denied the possibility of the facility being the source, saying there were no radioactive ruthenium traces in the surrounding soil. Instead, they suggested the source may have been a radionuclide battery from a satellite burning up during re-entry into the atmosphere.

    Steinhauser and his colleagues decided to investigate more thoroughly by forensically analysing 1300 measurements from hundreds of monitoring stations across Europe. They found that radiation levels in the atmosphere were between 30 and 100 times higher than those measured after Fukushima. “This was indeed quite alarming,” says Steinhauser.

    Eliminate the impossible
    The team excluded Romania as the source of the accident, despite the country’s high radiation levels. Each station in the country detected the radioactive plume simultaneously, which indicated the source was far enough away for it to have grown to the width of Romania.

    They also excluded a satellite as the cause because space organisations didn’t report any missing at the time. The pattern of radiation through the atmosphere didn’t match the spread of radiation from a satellite’s reentry either.

    Combining these findings with information on air movements and concentration levels from monitoring data, the team found clear evidence that the release happened in the Southern Urals, which is where the Mayak nuclear facility is located.

    The leak was unusual because the release was limited to radioactive ruthenium. “If there is a reactor accident, one would expect the release of radioactive isotopes of many different elements,” says Steinhauser. Exactly why such a specific element was released remained a mystery until Steinhauser learned that an Italian nuclear research facility had ordered a consignment of cerium-144 from Mayak before the incident. “There are several indications that the release of ruthenium-106 was linked to this order,” he says.

    Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1907571116

  2. Here is a strange proposal. Build thousands of islands covered with solar panels. Use the electricity to produce hydrogen and capture the CO 2, then make fuel from it. Hmmm.

  3. National Cancer Institute,
    “Accidents at Nuclear Power Plants and Cancer Risk”
    If the fuel and surrounding containment structures are severely damaged, radioactive materials and ionizing radiation may be released, potentially posing a health risk for people. The actual risk depends on several factors:
    The specific radioactive materials, or isotopes, released, and the quantities released.
    How a person comes into contact with the released radioactive materials (such as through contaminated food, water, air, or on the skin).
    The person’s age (those exposed at younger ages are generally at higher risk).
    The duration and amount of the exposure.
    More information about the health effects of ionizing radiation exposure is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency.
    The radioactive isotopes released in nuclear power plant accidents include I-131 and Cs-137. In the most severe kinds of accidents, such as the Chernobyl accident in 1986, other dangerous radioactive isotopes, such as strontium-90 (Sr-90) and plutonium-239, may also be released.
    Human exposure to I-131 released from nuclear power plant accidents comes mainly from consuming contaminated water, milk, or foods. People may also be exposed by breathing dust particles in the air that are contaminated with I-131.


  4. Trevor Nace May 27, 2019, Forbes
    “Fears Grow That ‘Nuclear Coffin’ Is Leaking Waste Into The Pacific”
    Rising sea level, soil shifting, and storms have all caused new concern over the integrity of the “nuclear coffin” and its ability to contain radioactive waste. The dome is reportedly cracking and the local government fears the next big storm may split the concrete dome apart. In addition, groundwater models suggest that seawater is almost certainly accessing the crater. However, it is unclear how much nuclear waste is seeping from the unlined crater bottom into the Pacific Ocean and groundwater aquifers.


  5. Noelle Talmon Ranker
    “There Is A Giant Nuclear Ticking Time Bomb Waiting To Blow In The Middle Of The Pacific Ocean”
    A 2013 inspection revealed that the Runit dome is decaying. The groundwater is radioactive, and sand has penetrated the structure. There are also several cracks on the dome, and vines are growing inside the crevices. If all this organic matter is penetrating the structure so easily, what of the radioactivity that it conceals? Eventually, the dome and the land around it could be underwater, or it will be destroyed by storms. Subsequently, radioactive material will leech into the ocean. Officials Aren’t Worried About The Dome Experiencing “Catastrophic Failure” Because The Surrounding Area Is Already So Radioactive.
    The Nuclear Claims Tribunal was developed in 1998, and the group determined that the United States owed the people of Enewetak approximately $244 million in compensation for the havoc the toxic waste wreaked on their lives. The nuclear testing resulted in people losing their homes as well as their jobs. And because the area is so contaminated, they are unable to export fish and other products as per the US Department of Energy.
    The locals live on a little bit of money they receive from a US trust fund, but many are barely able to support themselves.


  6. Coleen Jose, Kim Wall and Jan Hendrik Hinzel July 3, 2-15
    “This dome in the Pacific houses tons of radioactive waste – and it’s leaking,”

    The Runit Dome in the Marshall Islands is a hulking legacy of years of US nuclear testing. Now locals and scientists are warning that rising sea levels caused by climate change could cause 111,000 cubic yards of debris to spill into the ocean.

    In total, 67 nuclear and atmospheric bombs were detonated on Enewetak and Bikini between 1946 and 1958 – an explosive yield equivalent to 1.6 Hiroshima bombs detonated every day over the course of 12 years.
    The detonations blanketed the islands with irradiated debris, including Plutonium-239, When the testing came to an end, the US Defence Nuclear Agency (DNA) carried out an eight-year cleanup, but Congress refused to fund a comprehensive decontamination programme to make the entire atoll fit for human settlement again.

    In the end, US servicemen simply scraped off the islands’ contaminated topsoil and mixed it with radioactive debris. The resulting radioactive slurry was then dumped in an unlined 350-foot crater on Runit Island’s northern tip, and sealed under 358 concrete panels.


    1. Scary. Apparently the soil outside and even in the ocean around it is also highly radioactive now.

  7. Mark Abadi Jun. 16, 2016, Busienss Insider
    “The US dropped 67 nuclear bombs on this tiny island nation — and now it’s far more radioactive than we thought”
    Between 1946 and 1958, the US tested 67 nuclear weapons on the Marshall Islands, a chain of atolls in the Pacific Ocean with a population of just 52,000.
    The most famous test, the “Bravo shot,” was dropped on Bikini Atoll in 1954 and was 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
    The researchers discovered that radioactive materials on Bikini Atoll are producing 184 millirems of radiation a year — almost double the safety standard of 100 set by the US and the Marshall Islands. Some parts of the region hit a whopping 639 millirems per year.


  8. Charles Digges Published on October 2, 2017
    “The worst nuclear disaster you’ve never heard of celebrates its 60th birthday”

    September 29, 60 years ago, a tank containing nuclear weapons waste exploded on the grounds of the Mayak Chemical Combine, Russia’s primary spent nuclear fuel reprocessing center, which is still in operation.
    The fallout coated more than 200 towns and villages and exposed 272,000 people, a small portion of which were quietly evacuated over the subsequent two years, to radiation.
    Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom, meanwhile refuses to respond to specific charges of ongoing dumps, instead issuing general statements that Mayak operates within “environmental guidelines” and that the Techa complies with “sanitary standards.” Indeed, because the river is already so contaminated, establishing further contamination might seem merely academic.
    Those who live along the river, they say, have cancer at rates 3.6 times higher than the national average, and suffer 25 times more from incidence of birth defects than in other places in the country. Miscarriages continue to climb, and children carried to term are born with malformed limbs and organs. Many of the remaining adults suffer from lymph node swelling so severe that their words are unintelligible to visiting physicians. The strontium 90 flowing through the river, the doctors have concluded, has settled into the population’s bones.


  9. by Thomas Rabl , Arcadia, 2012, no. 20-
    Arcadia Collection:
    Disaster Histories

    29 September 1957, residents of the Chelyabinsk district in the Southern Urals noticed unusual bluish-violet colors in the sky. The regional press speculated about polar lights appearing exceptionally far south. However, within a few days, a slew of government activity became evident around the military area that housed the nuclear facility “Mayak.” Peasants were required to slaughter their livestock, bury their crops and plow their farmland. More than 20 villages, comprising over 11,000 people, were evacuated and completely demolished. No official statement was given about any of these orders, but everybody could figure out for themselves that a major accident had happened at “Mayak.”
    As a result of disregarding basic safety standards, 17,245 workers received radiation overdoses between 1948 and 1958. Dumping of radioactive waste into the nearby river from 1949 to 1952 caused several breakouts of radiation sickness in villages downstream. Residents of the area were thus familiar with the invisible dangers coming from the secret site.
    The Western world, though, came to hear about it only in 1976, when Soviet emigrant Zhores Medvedev first revealed some facts about the catastrophe. The CIA had known about it long before.

  10. Joseph Y Allen, MD
    Erin E Endom, MD , UpToDate
    “Management of radiation exposure in children following a nuclear disaster”

    The management of radiation injury in children and clinical features and management in adults are discussed separately. (See “Management of radiation exposure in children following a nuclear disaster” and “Biology and clinical features of radiation injury in adults” and “Treatment of radiation injury in the adult”.)


  11. MARIA TEMMING , Jan 14, 2019. Science news.
    “Your phone could reveal your radiation exposure afgter a nuclear disaster.”
    In the event of a nuclear attack or accident, personal electronics could be repurposed as radiation detectors.
    A ceramic insulator found in many devices, such as cell phones and fitness trackers, gives off a glow under high heat that reveals its past nuclear radiation exposure, researchers report in the February Radiation Measurements. That insight may allow experts to gauge someone’s radiation dose in a matter of hours, whereas typical blood tests can take weeks.
    When nuclear radiation floods the ceramic in electronic components called surface mount resistors, the radiation rearranges the distribution of electrons in defects in the ceramic’s crystalline structure. If heated to hundreds of degrees Celsius, the ceramic glows, and the wavelengths of light that make up that luminescence reveal the material’s electron distribution. From there, researchers can determine the dose of radiation that caused the material’s electron reshuffling. But the machine used to measure the ceramic’s luminescent glow costs about $150,000, so people in areas affected by nuclear disasters would have to send their personal electronics to specialized facilities for testing.


  12. Claire Leppold et al.
    “Public health after a nuclear disaster: beyond radiation risks”. 30 August 2016.
    Although numerous studies have been published, the health risks of radiation are still not well understood, and controversy is abundant even within the realms of scientific research. No deaths or acute health effects related to radiation exposure were reported in the general public immediately after the disaster.1 In October 2015, the results of two studies concerning the children of Fukushima were reported within two days of each other; one found no detectable internal radiation contamination,2 while the other found an increased risk of thyroid cancer. .3 After the catastrophic nuclear accident in April 1986 in the city of Chernobyl in Ukraine, it was found that the increased mental health burden was the most severe of any of the post-disaster public health problems.1Fukushima appears to be facing a similar situation.1 In addition to its impact on mental health, social disruption can be seen as a risk factor for physiological disease.

    Unsurprisingly, an increase in noncommunicable disease risks, such as high blood glucose levels and hyperlipidaemia, have been found in Fukushima,
    Foods grown in a person’s own garden are consumed at the individual’s own risk, and can go through radiation screening or not depending on personal choice. However, there is no explicit guidance about what should or should not be done in daily life. It is therefore unsurprising that medical professionals do not yet agree on how to advise older patients about continuing or abandoning old ways of living,


  13. Background:

    To facilitate the eventual deployment of Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMNRs), the nuclear industry and its regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), are lobbying to have SMNRs exempted from any form of public environmental assessment process. The less public attention, the better.

    The Vice-chair of the Canadian Senate Committee examining the proposed law that is designed to govern questions of environmental assessment is also on the Board of “Canada Carbon” — a company planning to mine a deposit of exceptionally pure graphite in Quebec.

    Very pure graphite is required for some types of nuclear reactors. Such high quality graphite is only required in nuclear reactors — there is no other use of graphite that necessitates such a near-total lack of impurities,

    It seems a clear case of conflict of interest.

    When Enrico Fermi achieved the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in Chicago, he used graphite. When the US Army built reactors at Hanford to produce plutonium for bombs, they used graphite. The Windscale nuclear reactor in Northern England required graphite, as did the Chernobyl reactor that melted down in 1986. (The Windscale reactor underwent a major nuclear accident in 1957 that spread radioactivity all over Northern Europe.)

    Almost all commercial power reactors require a moderator to slow down the very fast-moving neutrons that are needed to keep the nuclear chain reaction going. If a neutron bounces off other atoms without being absorbed, it loses momentum and thereby moderates its speed. The best moderators are (1) heavy water; (2) graphite; (3) ordinary water, called “light water”.

    A moderator must be free of impurities that absorb neutrons, for that would diminish the number of neutrons available for nuclear fission. Such a loss of neutrons is clearly undesirable.

    Some nuclear reactors, like the Canadian CANDU design, use heavy water as moderator. Others, like the British fleet of 26 MAGNOX reactors and 14 Advanced Gas-Cooled reactors, use graphite as moderator. The Russian fleet of RBMK reactors, 11 of which were still operating in 2017, also used graphite for this purpose. Most other reactors, including the American and French designs, use ordinary water, called “light water”, as a moderator.

    Very pure graphite can be used also as a “neutron reflector” — by bouncing escaping neutrons back into the core of the reactor. This allows a smaller volume of nuclear fuel to undergo more fissions than would otherwise be the case. Just as reflecting mirrors can magnify the light given off by a candle, so a neutron reflector can magnify the energy produced by a given amount of nuclear fuel.

    The nuclear industry is currently fighting a losing battle in North America and Western Europe. Old reactors are being shut down and new ones are not being built. In a desperate effort to keep the industry afloat, nuclear proponents are seeking public subsidies to create a new generation of “Small Modular Nuclear Reactors” (SMNRs) that can be built in a factory and transported to various locations, some of them small and isolated communities.

    To reduce the size of the reactor, a neutron reflector is helpful. To minimize the threat of radioactive spills, a solid moderator may be preferred to a liquid one. For certain SMNR designs, pure graphite will be in demand — if the dreams of the nuclear industry are ever to succeed.

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