Lessons from Chernobyl

Lessons from Chernobyl

Article Jan 31, 2005

Responding to an explosion that awoke them at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986, six firefighters stormed up more than 250 feet of exterior stairway and stared into the glowing face of the nuclear genie released just over four decades earlier. Within two weeks, all were dead.

Lessons Learned

In the face of legitimate concerns about the potential for nuclear terrorism, the lessons of Chernobyl are worth reviewing. In October 2003, the California National Guard and the California EMS Authority led a group of 20 emergency management specialists to eastern Europe to do just that.

We were lodged in Slavutich, a town in northern Ukraine of some 25,000 inhabitants, built in the aftermath of the accident. We were hosted by the International Chernobyl Center, a multinationally supported facility dedicated to deriving benefit from the world's worst manmade disaster.

After two days of lectures on radiation, the nuclear accident itself and the firefighter and medical response, we boarded a train to the now-mothballed nuclear facility. The ride takes about 40 minutes, and about halfway into it we entered the "exclusion zone." A good portion of the radionuclides (or radioactive isotopes from several elements)1 that spewed from the reactor almost 19 years ago settled in this area covering a radius of roughly 30 kilometers (about 18.5 miles) from the accident. Like the other passengers on our train--a work crew of men and women who toil at the endless cleanup and maintenance of the facility--we wore pager-sized devices that measured the radiation we were receiving.

Our group was impatient to see the structure that had left such an enormous mark on the land--a radioactive Florida by way of comparison--and an even more significant mark on human history. We were reminded that the accident had cost the Ukrainians approximately $100 billion, and the world as a whole possibly 10 times that amount in economic costs, and tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of deaths resulting from ongoing illness.

There was a time when Chernobyl was destined to be the world's largest nuclear facility by far. We were thunderstruck when we saw the towering structure the firefighters had scaled in hopes of extinguishing the fire ignited by the blast. Engineers and operators at the plant had believed their cherished reactor incapable of such an explosion. How wrong they were was underscored by the fact that a sudden "surge" in the nuclear reaction launched the reactor's 1,000-metric-ton sealing cap--the equivalent to about 1,102 U.S. tons--10 meters into the air. When the lid returned to the reactor, it did so at an angle, unleashing 100 times the amount of radioactive debris into the environment than did the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.2 This was the sound that awoke the sleeping firefighters who were more than a mile away.

The outside world didn't learn of the accident until an alarm at the nuclear reactor in Fosmark, Sweden, 1,000 miles from Chernobyl, forced the evacuation of that plant. Further investigation prompted pointed Swedish inquiries of the Soviet leadership.

The secrecy of the Soviet system had kept the true vulnerabilities of their nuclear reactors from the Soviets themselves. The 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania had been dismissed by the Soviet leadership as more evidence of greedy capitalists neglecting the health and safety of their compatriots. This dismissiveness was subsequently mirrored by many in the West who attributed the Chernobyl disaster to the technological backwardness of the Soviets--until 13 years later, when the nuclear fuel processing plant in Tokaimura, Japan, experienced its own release of radioactive material into the atmosphere.

One Clear Answer--Prepare

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As fire and EMS professionals, we came looking for insights into what Chernobyl might teach us about our own vulnerabilities. If we came looking for clear answers--and I admit to having had that hope--we were disappointed. The extent of the devastation wrought by Chernobyl is unknowable.

Matching nuclear cause and health effect is never easy, but we are fairly certain that hundreds and more likely thousands of childhood thyroid cancers and leukemias are the result of the radiation release. Almost certainly many more cancers will appear in years to come. The lowest figures for those forced to leave their homes forever is over 100,000, and the true figure may be three or four times that.

Uncertainty is the key to the current nuclear threat as well. Distinguishing real health threats from imagined ones is nearly impossible when the enemy is invisible and may seed death for decades to come. We in public safety, however, can take sad solace in some of what we learned from Chernobyl: The firefighters who died there probably did so needlessly.

Complacency about the dangers of the reactor had minimized the amount of preparation the plant operators had for such a contingency. The 20-odd firefighters stationed within the plant perimeter had no radiation preparation whatsoever. It is likely that they believed they were fighting a conventional fire, and considered that the chunks of burning reactor core--graphite for the most part--posed nothing more than a thermal danger.

Alternatively, as they began to become dizzy and vomit from the effects of acute radiation sickness (ARS), they may have suspected that danger to them personally was imminent, but continued to fight in hopes of containing an even wider disaster.

Technically, the burning never did stop. Deep within the so-called "sarcophagus" that was robotically constructed around the reactor, tons of nuclear material are still hot and will remain so for many generations. It took massive helicopters making up to 180 runs a day for 8 days to drop over 4,500 tons of sand, boron, dolomite and lead before the reactor was buried and the radiation release brought under relative control. The heroic efforts of those first firefighters, using hoses to douse the reactor, amounted to pitifully little.

Incident command presupposes the knowledge to stand back from an event, assess its scope and consider the safety of responders. The firefighters who attacked the nuclear disaster lacked both the knowledge and the authority to carry out their mission.

Though ARS may manifest within minutes, the types of massive exposures like those received by those first firefighters are extremely rare. ARS may actually take hours to manifest. In the case of those 134 Chernobyl plant operators and emergency responders diagnosed with ARS, the vast majority self-transported the 3 kilometers from the infamous Number 4 reactor to the hospital in Prypiat, a city once home to 50,000 people.

Unfortunately, the degree of radiation exposure over the population was greatly multiplied by the general failure to decontaminate those exposed. The victims carried radioactive dust and clothing saturated with radioactive water to the hospital. Simple facemasks that could have minimized further injury were never donned or provided even hours after the accident.

The order to evacuate the city of Prypiat was delayed over 30 hours, but when it came, it was carried out expeditiously. Four hours later, the city was empty--as it will remain forever. Had the prevailing winds been from the north rather than the south, Kiev and its population of 3 million might have been faced with a similar, but far more dramatic, situation.

Potential Nuclear Risks in the U.S.

According to a recent PBS Nova documentary on dirty bombs, or "radiological dispersion devices" (RDD), of the 2 million sources of radiation in the U.S., about one-tenth could pose a potential risk to the public. This is a figure that gives pause, but not nearly as much as the fact that approximately 30,000 sources of radiation in the U.S. have been reported as missing.

If a terrorist device combining nuclear material with a conventional explosive was detonated, as with any hazmat event, ensuring that those properly hazmat-trained and equipped secure the scene initially is essential. Thereafter, the injured, once removed from any immediate contamination source, should be triaged, treated and transported according to routine protocols.

The medical responders, nurses and doctors who treated the victims of Chernobyl received insignificant doses of radiation. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine compared these secondary exposures to the equivalent of a CT pelvic exam.3

After 9/11, scenarios that once sounded farfetched now seem all but inevitable. A radiation release, whether unintentional or otherwise, has the potential to create widespread fear and panic. The year following Chernobyl, the Brazilian city of Goiania became the victim of an accidental dispersal of barely enough Cesium 137 to fill a matchbox. The release resulted in 249 exposures and five deaths. Significantly, 112,000 people demanded medical evaluation from local authorities.4 It is essential that state and national governments prepare for similar eventualities.

Our group couldn't help but admire the dedication of the men and women we met in Ukraine. Their eagerness to increase our understanding of the effects of a significant radiation release allowed us to better understand future threats. Whatever these threats prove to be in fact, their potential for devastation can be lessened provided we begin preparing for them now.


1. Health Physics Society. Glossary of radiation terms.
2. Chernobyl.info. The Chernobyl accident: The explosion of the reactor. Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).
3. Mettler FA Jr, Voelz GL. Major radiation exposure--what to expect and how to respond. N Engl J Med 346:1554-61, 2002.
4. Zimmerman PD with Loeb C. Dirty bombs: The threat revisited. Defense Horizons, Jan 2004. Center for Technology and National Security Policy, National Defense University.

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