Hospitals were bombed in Ukraine. Are the radioactive materials in these buildings a hazard?
That is something we need to think about, because in this war, many unimaginable things have become real.
There are two medical sources of radiation. One is a machine, like X-ray machines or linear accelerators, that are used to treat cancer. They emit some radiation, but only if they are turned on. When you turn it off, it’s just a piece of metal.
But another source uses isotopes such as cobalt or cesium, which are used in nuclear medicine and radiation therapy, for example in positron emission tomography (PET). They are physically protected in the hospital, which means they are protected from theft. But they are not protected from the bomb.
If they were compromised, we could see something similar 1989 accident in Goiania, Brazil. Then some people stole and dismantled the radiotherapy device from the abandoned hospital to sell the parts as scrap metal. They discovered this small ampoule filled with cesium, which shone blue at night. It is a long story, but the only destroyed source of radiation contaminated most of Gojania. Four people died, 20 needed hospital treatment, and 249 people were contaminated. Eighty-five houses were significantly contaminated, and 200 people living in those homes were evacuated. Therefore, such a scenario should be considered. And without thinking about the malicious use of resources.
What types of malicious use?
Spent fuel assemblies, for example, are very good material for making a dirty bomb, which is a scenario for a terrorist attack. A more technical term is a radiological dispersion device. If you attach such radioactive sources to the device and explode, it will result in contamination of a large area with radioactive material. Many radiological scenarios of this kind are now on the table.
How are nuclear power plants in Ukraine monitored now?
Radiation monitoring networks have been set up at each nuclear power plant, but they are now off, so Ukrainian and international agencies no longer receive real-time data from them. The Ukrainian government and authorities no longer have access to this network, which was quite sophisticated and operational before this invasion.
There is also a remote monitoring network set up across the country to detect radiation. I think that the points closest to the plants are also disabled, or at least excluded from this general network. If something really bad happened, more distant monitors would notice. It’s not real-time control – it would be hours before you noticed it. Unless reported by people under Russian control.
Have there been any problems so far?
What I know from official reports is that shortly after the invasion, before the connection was broken, there was a fivefold increase in the radiation dose at the Chernobyl site. The most probable explanation is that the tanks disturbed the radioactive material on the ground.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a no-go zone. Some tourism is allowed, and if you follow the rules it is quite safe, but it can still be dangerous. What they were doing was moving the tanks back and forth, out of the way. This was a highly contaminated area after the 1986 accident, and some of the most polluted areas were intentionally covered with soil and vegetation to prevent a resumption of radioactivity.
Tanks could immediately disturb these heavily contaminated soil layers. Those guys [Russian soldiers] not only do they disregard the law, but they disregard all reasonable rules of radiation safety. Now they have inhaled this dust and have radiation in their bodies. That is stupid, both from an ecological point of view and from a global point of view. At the local level, it is very dangerous and stupid. A fivefold increase in dose would be a local problem.
How would you measure contamination in humans if the incident happened now?
There are two or three types of devices that are really important at the time of an accident. But many of the devices we now have in Ukraine are obsolete.
After the Chernobyl accident, between 1987 and around 1991, we went through a period of accumulating radiation monitoring capacity. Since then, interest in Chernobyl has been much less. As a result, many of our dosimetry devices are from 1991 or 1992 at the latest. The usual lifespan for these types of instruments is 10 years. They are now over 30 years old. Equipment that is still in operation is not in good condition. As a result, we really need it [new equipment]. We have made some official requests for such equipment, but I have also made requests to colleagues in the United States.
What are the devices you need?
One type is called a survey meter. They are radiometers, like the Geiger-Müller tube. They have a display that shows you the doses so you can see which area is dangerous and which is not. There are also some special dose meters, which are useful for measuring contamination of clothing, hair and surfaces after an emergency.
So-called full-body monitors are specifically calibrated to measure internal contamination, for example, in people who drink local milk or inhale contaminated air. Personal dosimeters look like badges. These are small devices of about 10 grams that are attached to people’s clothes. They are sent to laboratories to determine the dose to which the person has been exposed.
Can we learn from Chernobyl?
Not really. After the Chernobyl disaster, everything was under complete control. It was possible to mobilize and recruit thousands of buses to evacuate the population. It was a completely different story.
Now we have quarrels – some territories are out of control, and others are under fire. I can’t imagine such an evacuation process being possible. We do not have the funds for such an evacuation, and we do not know where to evacuate. Evacuation routes can be attacked and bombed, as is the case in Mariupol.
My recommendation, if such an emergency situation occurs, is to withdraw as long as possible before you receive special orders from the authorities. Don’t move. Don’t try to escape. Simple shelter. It doesn’t have to be underground – even apartment blocks provide enough radiation protection if you stay away from windows.
You moved out of Kiev. Where are you staying now?
I am near Kiev, about 25 kilometers, in a country house. Fortunately, this area is quite safe and I am able to communicate with Kiev. I stay an hour’s drive from Kiev, so I can go to Kiev if needed. I am on standby — if my competence or my work is needed, I will return to my job. That was the reason why we decided not to run away.
I am optimistic about the success of the Ukrainian army against the Russians. Ukraine will simply not be conquered. Giving up or forgiving is simply not an option.
Our children have two 4-year-old daughters, so we moved them to a safer place. But the old ones stay here. I am old enough to sacrifice my life if necessary.