Hospitals have been bombed in Ukraine. Do the radioactive materials in those buildings pose a risk?
It is something that we have to take into account, because in this war many unthinkable things have become reality.
There are two medical radiation sources. One is machines, such as X-ray machines or linear accelerators, which are used to treat cancer. They do emit some radiation, but only when they are on. Once you turn it off, it’s just a piece of metal.
But the second 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 a bomb attack.
If they were compromised, we could see something like the Goiânia accident in Brazil in 1989, when some people stole and dismantled a radiotherapy machine from an abandoned hospital site to sell the parts for scrap. They discovered this small ampoule filled with cesium, which glowed blue at night. It’s a long story, but the only radiation source destroyed has contaminated much of Goiânia. Four people died, 20 had to be treated in hospital and 249 people became infected. Eighty-five houses were significantly polluted and 200 of the people living in these houses were evacuated. So this kind of scenario should be considered. And that is without thinking about malicious use of the resources.
What types of malicious use?
For example, the spent fuel assemblies are a very good material for making a dirty bomb, which is a scenario for a terrorist attack. The more technical term is a radiological diffusion device. Attaching such radioactive sources to a device and making it explode will contaminate a large area with radioactive material. There are now many such radiological scenarios on the table.
How are nuclear power plants in Ukraine now controlled?
Radiation monitoring networks were set up at each nuclear power plant, but they have now been disconnected so that 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 advanced and operational before this invasion.
A remote monitoring network has also been set up across the country to detect radiation. I think the points closest to the plants are also off, or at least cut off from this general network. If something bad were to happen, it would be noticed by more distant monitors. It is not a real time monitoring – hours would pass before it would be noticed. Unless it was 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, about a fivefold increase in radiation dose was recorded at the Chernobyl site. The most plausible explanation is that tanks disrupted radioactive material on the ground.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a prohibited area. A little tourism is allowed, and if you follow the rules, it’s quite safe, but it can still be dangerous. What they did was move tanks back and forth, off-road. This was a very heavily contaminated area after the accident in 1986, and some of the most contaminated areas were deliberately covered with soil and vegetation to prevent a recurrence of radioactivity.
The tanks could directly disturb these heavily contaminated soil layers. those guys [Russian soldiers] not only neglecting the law, but also all reasonable radiation safety rules. Now they have inhaled this dust and have radiation in their bodies. It’s stupid from an ecological point of view and from a global point of view. On a local level it is very dangerous and stupid. The five-fold increase in dose would present a local problem.
How would you measure contamination in people if an incident were to take place now?
There are two or three types of devices that are really important at the time of the 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 increasing radiation monitoring capacity. Since then, interest in Chernobyl has been much lower. As a result, many of our dosimetry devices are from 1991 or 1992 at the latest. The normal lifespan of such instruments is 10 years. Now they are over 30 years old. The equipment that is still operational is not in very good condition. So we really need that [new equipment]† We have made some official requirements for such equipment, but I have also made requests to colleagues in the US.
What are the devices you need?
One type is called a measuring meter. They are radiometers, like a Geiger-Müller tube. They have a display where you can see the dose rates so you can see which area is dangerous and which is not. There are also some special dose rate meters, which are useful for measuring contamination of clothing, hair and surfaces after an emergency.
So-called body monitors are specially calibrated to measure internal contamination, for example in people who drink local milk or breathe polluted air. Personal dosimeters look like badges. They are small devices of maybe 10 grams that are attached to people’s clothes. They are sent to labs to determine the dose a person has been exposed to.
Can we learn lessons from Chernobyl?
Not really. After the Chernobyl disaster, everything was under control. It was possible to mobilize and recruit a thousand buses to evacuate the population. It was a very different story.
Now we have battles – some areas are out of control and others are under attack. I cannot imagine such an evacuation process being possible. We don’t have the resources for such an evacuation, and we don’t know where to evacuate to. The evacuation routes can be attacked and bombed, as in Mariupol.
My recommendation, should such an emergency arise, is to hide as long as possible before receiving special orders from the authorities. Don’t move. Don’t try to escape. Just shelter. It doesn’t have to be underground – even condominiums provide adequate radiation shielding if you stay away from the windows.
You have moved from Kiev. Where are you staying now?
I am near Kiev, about 25 kilometers away, in a country house. Fortunately, this area is quite safe and I can communicate with Kiev. I stay within an hour’s drive from Kiev, so that I can go to Kiev if necessary. I’m in standby mode – if my competency or my job is needed, I go back to my workplace. That was why we decided not to run.
I am optimistic about the success of the Ukrainian army against the Russians. Ukraine simply will not be subjugated. Giving up or forgiving is simply not an option.
Our children have two daughters of 4 years old, so we moved them to a safer place. But the elderly stay here. I’m old enough to sacrifice my life if need be.