By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The Chernobyl nuclear power plant has lost electricity vital to its cooling. Nuclear material could evaporate and discharge, although, it isn’t likely. Now is a perfect time to review radiation.
Russian forces seized Chernobyl on the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to Ukraine’s state energy company, the power plant—which was the site of a catastrophic accident in 1986—is no longer on the power grid as of March 9. Until that point, electricity had been used to cool the plant’s 20,000 spent fuel rods. There is now a risk, albeit unlikely, that onsite nuclear material could evaporate and discharge, giving off harmful radiation.
Just how harmful is radiation? It depends. In his video series Nuclear Physics Explained, Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, Professor of Physics at Old Dominion University, lays out the basics of nuclear radiation and details its dangers.
Radiation Damage 101
According to Dr. Weinstein, radiation damages cells by “knocking loose the electrons that form chemical bonds and breaking apart molecules.” This happens because charged particles interact with the atomic electrons in the materials they pass through. Heavier particles are shorter range and knock more electrons loose, while lighter particles knock out fewer, making it easier for the body to repair the loosened bonds and molecules.
“The more energy deposited in a small region, a lot more damage in that region, a lot harder to repair,” he said. “So, electrons—and the photons or gamma rays that knock out other electrons—have a very low weight. But low-energy electrons, beta rays, are stopped by the skin and give something called ‘beta burns’ because they deposit all of their energy there.
“Gamma rays just keep going and going.”
Dr. Weinstein said that DNA in dividing cells is the most vulnerable to radiation because DNA is uncoiled and exposed, while DNA in a regular cell is coiled up. Cells that divide quickly are found in lymph nodes, sperm cells, bone marrow cells, and cells in the intestine, as well as in children’s growing bodies.
Harmful Versus Harmless Radiation
According to Dr. Weinstein, only ionizing radiation is harmful because only it can ionize atoms and break their chemical bonds. Non-ionizing radiation, on the other hand, doesn’t break chemical bonds. Cell phone studies tell us more.
“There have been some contradictory case control studies, but there were two large cohort studies,” he said. “There was a study in Denmark, looking at 400,000 people; and there was the United Kingdom Million Woman study. Both of those found that cell phones had no effect on brain cancer.
“More importantly, there’s been no change in the brain cancer incidents in the United States in 40 years as cell phone usage has just grown dramatically.”
The dangers of power lines are also overblown. Their photons have incredibly low energy and studies have not shown damage from power lines. Microwaves have been found to be safe as well. Ionizing radiation remains the big concern. Dr. Weinstein said that acute radiation syndrome is the term for a single large exposure to ionizing radiation, while a chronic dose is exposure over time.
“[Acute radiation syndrome] kills lots of cells, all at once, especially the fast-dividing ones,” he said. “If a nuclear bomb goes off, there’s a lot of direct radiation, and then there’s fallout from the fission isotopes—and the wind can carry that radioactive fallout large distances.”
Chronic doses of radiation don’t kill quickly; they take longer periods of time. Dr. Weinstein said that radioactive iodine, or iodine-131, is in nuclear fallout. The human body transports iodine into the thyroid, where iodine-131 stays, causing cancer. Thyroid cancers often occur in nuclear bomb survivors and in the Chernobyl victims, and will likely spike if the worst happens at Chernobyl.