Startup: A Bit of Perspective

The remains of the Chernobyl reactor.

On April 26, 1986, engineers at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine began an experiment to test whether residual energy in the nuclear reactor’s steam turbines could be used to provide enough power to bridge the gap between the time a reactor failed, and the time a diesel generator could come up to speed and provide enough power to run the reactor’s coolant pumps. As anyone who was around at the time will no doubt remember, that test failed in spectacular fashion.

This incident is particularly important to remember as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, because with the Fukushima incident currently being dealt with in Japan, the media is making a whole lot of comparisons to that accident, and some have claimed that the disaster in Japan is on a scale rivaling Chernobyl.

We here at AtomicToasters are of course not experts, but the central philosophy of the site is that sometimes technology deserves a closer look, and we encourage our readers to do just that.

Reports out of Japan are that at the worst points in this disaster, levels of radiation reached levels as high as 1000 mSv, a thousand milliSieverts, or one Sievert, per hour, with a Sievert being the metric measurement for radiation levels. There have been other measurements that have shown brief periods where radiation levels immediately adjacent to the reactors have reached 400 mSv, or .4 Sv. For the most part, radiation levels have sat somewhere less than 10 mSv, or on average, about the same levels as you would receive from a CT scan or mammogram.

For a comparision, radiation levels surrounding the Chernobyl reactor, immediately following its explosion and meltdown, were in the range of 300 Sv, or somewhere around 30,000 times the average levels at Fukushima.

Again, we do not for a moment want to minimize or trivialize the incident in Japan. The fact that it has been a disaster is indisputable. We do, however, encourage you to get informed, and do some research about the true facts of the story. It is far too easy for a reporter, working to beat a deadline, to throw around comparisons that may be accurate from a single perspective, but fail to give a true evaluation of the situation. Sound-bites and half-truths lead to misunderstandings and misinformation, and its our responsibility, as good nerds in our society, to be the better-informed neighbours.

  • tiberiusẅisë

    So another Soviet record stands. Great.

    <img src="; width="300">

  • PowerTryp

    Just to clear up some of this Sievert confusion. Randall Munroe, XKCD artist and writer has made this fantastic radiation chart that goes from the amount of radiation the person sleeping next to you gives off all the way up to untreatable doses.


  • RSDeuce

    Here is another one (giving much credit to XKCD for the idea first, but a little easier to digest IMHO.)

    As a side note, I love, because it is chock-full of ways for me to better understand concepts in the world around me. A huge time-waster for learning how to picture things in ways you never had before.

    • That was great as well, and thanks for the website tip… I am prepared to loose many productive hours for the greater good.

  • James

    Just as there are those in the media and Japanese Government today trying to minimize the impact of this disaster, so were there people in the USSR on the same mission after Chernobyl. Which only serves to make comparison of the two even more perilous.

    Almost no one today would argue thatf the exclusion zone around Chernobyl was rationally sized. Understandably so, we had little data about how a nuclear power crisis would go down.

    Today we see that cancer rates in the areas around the exclusion zone are quite elevated – as much as the nuclear cheerleaders in Russia would like to deny it. Makes it harder to sell your technology if the buyer sees that an accident could make unusable 1/2 of his country.

    In the Ukraine, the exclusion zone could have been the size of Texas and other than lowering cancer rates, there would be little effect. The population density is not so high there that you couldn't have "safe" sized exclusion zone and relocate all the residents. Yet it didn't happen.

    And use the information learned from Chernobyl (+25 years of study) to develop a formula for a realistic "safe" exclusion zone around Fukushima – even if it doesn't get any worse, which it still could – and you'd have to make Tokyo look like Pripyat. Ghost town Tokyo. Not going to happen.

    Tokyo will be our first radiologically polluted megalopolis. Makes smog and sewage polluted rivers look so positively 20th century.

    "Citizens, today we are having a radiation alert day due to strong winds from the northeast. The authorities advise you to stay indoors as much as possible and keep all infants in their lead lines playpens."

    • skitter

      While I appreciate your concern and skepticism, this is an event we can quantify. Therefore we can react proportionally and appropriately. Have some of the Fukushima workers been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation? Tragically, yes. Has anyone else been endangered? Thanks to their quick action and much safer containment systems, probably not.

    • Deartháir

      No, actually, Tokyo will not be our first "radiologically polluted megalopolis". At the levels you're talking about thus far, every single one of our cities has been exposed to those levels of radiation.

  • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

    Here are some fantastic sources of information I have run across.

    Crisis at Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant
    A recent presentation from Caltech given by Joseph Shepherd with slides, video of the presentation, and many many fantastic links:

    Continuous updates from the Nuclear Energy Institute about the Fukushima reactors and region:

    MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub
    There is just a wealth of digested information here:

    The Daily Yomiuri online
    Here's where I have been getting my daily English language Japanese news (actually I'd be interested if others could recommend other good sources too) which from the start was not breathless panic and speculation that CNN and BBC were in comparison: