The Chernobyl Project - HOME

Friday, December 5, 2008

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q: Why do you want to go to the Chernobyl Zone?

A: To be perfectly honest, I can't give a reasonable explanation to this question. Somehow I'm simply drawn to that place. If you browse around the Internet a little, you will find that there are many people like me. Maybe its the post-apocalyptic scene. Maybe the unseen killer lingering around, the sense of imminent danger. Maybe that I'm just interested in the whole accident and its aftermath. But you have to agree, (fortunately) there is no place like this on Earth. As you can see, my idea of a vacation is quite different from yours... :-)

Q: Insn't the area around Chernobyl still contaminated by radiation?
A: Yes, it is. Although some contaminants dacayed in seconds, others in days and weeks after the accident (eg. Iodine 131), radiation will be around for many more generations to come.

Q: Is it safe to go to the "Zone"?
A: The short answer is no. Everything carries a certain amount of risk - and frankly, going to an irradiated and abandoned area is probably more dangerous, than watching the latest episode of House M.D. on your couch. But the risk is highly theoretical and it is probably not even statistically significant. Everyone has a definition of "safe", after all it is just a word with an arbitrary meaning attached to it. Is the chair you are sitting on right now safe? By whose standards?

Q: Aren't you going to get sick by going to the Zone? Isn't that dangerous?
A: Radiation is not like a virus infection, you will not get "poisoned" as the peculiar English phrase might suggest. Radiation is everywhere around us, you are even affected by it right now - when reading these very lines. This background radiation is very low, and normal. When assessing the danger or the seriousness of a radiation dosage - you have to consider the level of radiation and the time spent near the source. It is no means safe to live in Chernobyl, or eat mushrooms grown anywhere there. But the level of radiation is perfectly safe enough to enter the restricted zone for a day. (Or even more...)

Q: Even though you think the trip is safe, aren't you just a little afraid?
A: Generally speaking no, though there are two remotely possible worrisome situations I can conceive: The first is having the car broken while deep inside the zone or having a car accident there. The more troubling idea is to breathe in a "hot" particle, a tiny bit of dust from the radioactive fuel blown out to the surroundings.

Q: What's the yellow instrument? What is the type of the dose meter you are using? Where can I get one of those?
A: It is a beta/gamma dose and dose rate meter. Measures the radiation in units which can be related back to the radiation's effect on the human body: Sieverts and its fractions. It is manufactured by a Ukranian company, called Ecotest and its type is "Terra-P". You can get one on eBay.
Q: What is the measurement unit of radiation?
A: There are many measurement units related to radiation, all a little different in their definition. Although it might seem a little overwhelming at first, you may learn about them here. Most people are interested in its effect on humans, the radiation dose or the dose rate. The exposure to radiation is measured in Sieverts (Sv), and because this is a large unit its fractions milli and micro Sieverts (mSv, μSv). The dose can be simply defined as the accumulated exposure in any given time, the dose rate as the dose received in a given time frame, usually an hour (mSv/h, μSv/h)...

Q: What is the safe radiation level?
A: For long time exposure, the maximal safe level is usually considered to be 0.30 μSv/h - depending on the local laws and regulations. Mind you, this means that you can be exposed up to this level for all your life, and still be fine. The typical background radiation will be somewhat lower, around 0.10 - 0.30 μSv/h. You can easily calculate the annual dose from that.
There is a decent guide about the acute effects of radiation exposure shown here. The low level exposure effects are somewhat disputed, science has not entirely answered this question yet. (The simple linear model is actually extrapolated from the data gathered after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, this is a somewhat limited source - as of course there is no other/better way to test radiation on humans.)

Q: What is the equivalent in radiation dose to a day trip to Chernobyl? What dose will you get there?
A: It's about the same as getting a full chest X-Ray, or even comparable to the excess radiation acquired on a long intercontinental flight. Yes, you get about 25 times the normal background radiation at a cruising altitude of 8000m.
Anything below 0.05 Sv can be considered as entirely harmless. No symptoms are shown even up to 0.2 Sv, after wich red blood cells go through a temporary change. The expected dose I will get from the trip is around 0.010 - 0.015 mSv. To put this another perspective, that is ~0.00001 Sv.

Q: You are interested in the Chernobyl accident. Does that mean, that you are opposed to nuclear power?

A: Absolutely not. Given the current alternatives, nuclear power is the best alternative. The inefficiency of wind and solar power, the environmentally destructive influence of other major power sources makes nuclear power plants are the best choice. Nothing comes without an attached cost and safety, that's why everything has to be done to ensure maximal reliability. Technology has changed much since 1986, the Chernobyl reactor was seriously outdated even back then.

Q: Are you a nuclear scientist? Do you know much about nuclear physics?
A: No, I'm a control engineer. My understanding in nuclear physics is pretty basic.

Q: Do you play S.T.A.L.K.E.R.?
No, I'm not much into video games. Although I would like to try this one.

Friday, October 31, 2008


I guess this is the dark side of online shopping... I've ordered a book last week, Chernobyl 1986 by Vic Parker. I have received an email confirmation today, that I may pick up my copy at the Oxford Border's store. I was really looking forward to the good read, especially that it was about such a rarely discussed topic that captures my interest.
To my surprise, the book was not really a book - I should call it a brochure with merely 50 pages, and large typography. This is not the worst part of, it - the book is meant to a young audience as the author describes her target readers. One thing is that I can hardly imagine the crowd of teenagers interested in the nuclear disasters, who is not quite ready for the adult books.
I personally think that the style is too patronizing even for young people, the writer treats the reader (even if young) as an idiot, and spells out common sense knowledge, especially in a book about a fairly obscure topic. The worse is yet to come: the text is plagued with the usual "I'm a humanities graduate, so I can afford to write bullshit relating to science" attidude. There is a great deal of inaccuracies, and misleading "facts". I don't recommend it to anyone to be perfectly honest. Oh well, "shift" happens. (owing this pun to Scott Adams)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Inside the sarcophagus

I've found a documentary on YouTube about the sarcophagus. The picture quality is pretty inferior, as I have the feeling that it was ripped from a VHS tape. Most of the time its dark, but you can see some very creepy and chilling pictures as the scientists take readings inside the Chernobyl containment - known as the sarcophagus.
The commentary comes again with the old scare tale: "[...] under the right conditions this missing fuel could unleash a chain reaction [...]". The key phrase here is under the right circumstances, since I believe the chance of that is infinitesimal.
It is pretty funny how the commenter refers to the film crew wearing "western respiratory equipment". Yes, the far superior western respirators will shield you from gamma radiation. Probably the paper masks worn by the Russian scientists filters out the dust just as well... Another gross error in the commentary is "[...] Roentgens or Rads". Well these units are different and their definitions are not identical. Rad is obsolete anyways, its use is discouraged in scientific community. Sometimes I really have the feeling that journalists as other humanities graduates feel that science is complicated, so they have the right not to understand it and misreport things. See the health scares, reports on homeopathy and other funny stuff: Bad science...
Well, if you have not been put off by this introduction, here are the short movies. Note that the documentary has been split into two parts, due to the ten minutes limit on YouTube videos:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Radiological instruments at the MOSI

I've visited my friend in Sheffield, UK last weekend. We also took a day trip to check out Manchester. How cold two engineers kill a rainy afternoon? By going into the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) of course. The museum itself has a pretty interesting collection - at least interesting in any technically/scientifically wired brain:)
Unfortunately we only had a couple of hours to fly through the exhibitions. I could recommend a visit there, you could spend a day around all the exciting stuff. We stumbled into a small collection of radiological instruments - mostly from the 70's and 80's. I will post some of them, along with a short description. So here we go:The one above is my favourite - the big sphere is actually part of the instrument. This is a neutron meter, used to measure the number of neutrons around a reactor or a plutonium store. It was used from the late 60's to the late 70's...This one above is a vintage beta and gamma dose rate meter from the seventies. Used to measure radiation dose rate in the field or at the workplace.
This is a more interesting one. The one in the middle is a portable air sampler, from the late 60's. The filter paper on the front was removed regularly. It was examined for alpha, beta radiaton and assessed later. Could be used for Iodine 131 monitoring as well.Here we go onto the more exotic fast neutron meter. This early 60's instrument was used around a nuclear reactor.This one above is just a regular gamma dose rate meter from the 70's.And a background radiation monitor, used around nuclear waste in the 70's. It has its readings in counts per second: CPM. I like the cool "gun shaped" design. I wonder wheter it is meant to give readings from a distance...
Here we go onto some film badges. Were worn by workers in the nuclear industry, have been largely replaced by digital, reusable equivalents. The films became more darker as they gathered radiation - this way the dose could be estimated. The one on the right (blue) is actually sensitive to slow neutrons too!
That's all, hope you enjoyed our little tour to "retro" equipment - sorry for the bad quality photos. It was really dark in the whole museum, and this exhibition was no exception...

Friday, October 10, 2008

Not my trip to Chernobyl... ...yet.

It's been almost a year now, that we made this website with my friend Danex. Sadly enough, we have not visited the Zone yet. I don't really know how Danex feels about this, but there is a strong yet from my side. I still want to go, its more a matter of when, and not if.
As you could see from the number of post, the "project" is on hold currently. Let's see someones pictures from a trip to Chernobyl. Thanks for the link from a kind unknow, who posted it on my other website. (In Hungarian, sorry.) So let's look at those photos, shall we?

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Rock in My Room

I used to collect minerals and cool rocks as a kid. All the different sizes, colors and shapes have fascinated me, and they still do. Yes, I know - I always nurtured this inner nerd-slash-scientist in me, it was just a matter of when not the if to come to surface. The organized chaos is something hard to descirbe. You cannot be sure that something really is random, yet see the beauty in it.
The collection never grew to a large proportions, most of the pieces wait in cardboard boxes for their fate. Some of the bigger, crystallized minerals are still in my room. Objects which remind me off all the weird hobbies I've taken on and abandoned eventually.
I had an idea today. Let's test if any of the rocks has detectable radioactivity over the background radiation. Oh yes. It's good to have all those expensive and exotic measuring devices in a common household. Of course it is quite ironic not to find a measuring tape in your home, but to have a frequency counter, radio scanner and a dosimeter within an arm's reach...
So anyways - I've found out that I kept a rock with four times the normal background radiation in my rooms. The close reading (beta plus gamma radiation) gives around 0.47 uSv... (where u=micro) Hey, I would not really want to keep that under my pillow.
Radioactive rock? Anyone? Check out the very short video. The beeping is coming from the dosimeter, of course safety standards would be badly crossed with that kind of long time exposure:

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Images of the invisible

Alice Miceli has a running art project focused on the Chernobyl accident and the life of the surrounding area. What I've found most intriguing about the project (Accidentally also having the title "Chernobyl Project". We did not steal the idea, we swear:) is the idea of using industrial radiology films in a lead lined pinhole camera. If you did not grasp the concept yet, she is using a special radiography AGFA film to capture images of radiation, instead of images made by light. Check it out yourself...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

TERRA-P with a check source

So have I found anything radioactive with the TERRA-P around me? No. Fortunately. I consider this to be a good thing. Except of course the natural background radiation, which is generally somewhere around 0.10 uSv (where u=micro). But that's not fun, and won't really show whether my shiny new and bright yellow radiometer works as it should...
What I did not know is that Danex's vintage Victoreen has a check source on its side. As the you might have concluded by now, a check source is a source which allows you to check if your device works correctly or not:) I had the privilege to abuse Danex's radiometer to test my own. The picture below shows the source, and the TERRA-P showing the normal background radiation:
The check source emits beta radiation. So to measure the beta (in addition to the gamma) radiation, one has to remove the little hinged door. The door has a thin lead lining, which is supposed to prevent beta radiation to enter the tube. Without the door, you can see the Geiger-Mueller tube exposed:
Just about a foot (~30cm) from the check source surface, the readings are not too terrifying - but still well over the admissible maximum. The values below indicate about 4 times the background reading. That's certainly a lot more than I would like to have in my house - at least for prolonged exposure:
Aaand this is where the fun begins. The TERRA-P has an user adjustable alarm limit. The maximal value what you can enter is 9.99uSv/h. If the radiation level is over the set value - the device will warn you with a loud beeping. (Instead of the standard clicking - chirping count sound.) As you can see, this is well over the alarms limit, and violates every possible health regulation. I don't even know how this went through the customs???:) Anyways, this picture shows the radiation 115 times over the normal levels. Even though this is a direct reading - I would not carry the check source in my pocket... ;)